Norman Public Schools’ Board of Education voted after a 14-hour hearing Friday to fire a Norman High School teacher who leaked photos of threatening graffiti in a school bathroom.
Richard Cavett, now a former Norman High history teacher, was terminated from his position with a 4-1 board vote in favor of his firing. Board member Alex Ruggiers was the lone "no" vote; board members did not comment on their votes.
The board found that Cavett committed “repeated negligence” in his duties as a teacher, that he violated policies, laws and his contract, and that his actions were “contrary to justice,” board attorney Karen Long said.
Cavett’s attorney Cameron Spradling said Cavett’s legal team will continue to support and fight for him, and that they regard him as “a hero.”
“Obviously we’re terribly disappointed by the decision by the Norman Board of Education today ... I’m saddened about this,” Spradling said.
The district’s administration recommended Cavett’s termination after an incident Feb. 17, when NHS students discovered graffiti in a women’s bathroom stall.
The graffiti listed first names with last name initials, called the listed students racial slurs and derogatory names and degraded Black History Month and Black Lives Matter with expletives. Norman Police said there was not a “racial component” to the threats.
The graffiti also threatened violence, saying “shooting up this damn place 2/28/2022,” among other shooting threats.
The district quickly painted over the graffiti, which reappeared Feb. 18 and 22. Police reports confirmed the graffiti was covered before school resource officers could see it in person.
The school’s principal immediately informed school resource officers of the graffiti, leading to police investigation.
Cavett, on hearing about the threat and receiving photos of the graffiti from a student, shared the photos to an administrator around 11 a.m., then just after noon Feb. 17, shared them to an NPS parent to get them out to local media and alert parents and the public to the issue. The parent shared the pictures to multiple local news outlets and to a Facebook group.
Cavett’s team revealed Friday that though the district emailed parents on Feb. 17 to tell them there was no credible threat at NHS, Norman police said that same day they could not confirm that statement, and the investigation was ongoing. School resource officers at NHS did not begin interviewing students about the incident until several days after Feb. 17.
It was not until a Feb. 25 email from Superintendent Nick Migliorino that the district revealed it had “failed to confirm” with all relevant NPD parties that it could say there was “no credible threat” to NHS. Migliorino’s email mentioned threatening messages, but did not alert parents of the nature of the threat.
No school resource officers testified at Friday’s hearing.
“I was disappointed that we didn’t have Norman police officers here, the SROs here — I think if the public were aware of the police investigation, the SRO investigation. And the lack of communication they had with Norman Public Schools, I think there would have been a different opinion made,” Spradling said.
Debating district trust
Cavett’s attorneys argued Friday that his actions were protected under his First Amendment right to free speech, while the administration’s lawyers claimed Cavett violated NPS board policy, federal and state laws, and the terms of NPS’ teacher contract by sharing the list of student names, delaying sharing photos with administration and more.
Administration said Cavett immediately told an assistant principal about the threats after he learned about them, but did not send her the photos he’d received until more than 24 hours after he was asked; attorneys said his delay impeded investigations as administration didn’t know for some time which student had shared the photos with Cavett.
Holly Nevels, NPS’ associate superintendent and chief human resource officer, said Cavett should have followed through on his duty to students by following up with administrators and ensuring the right people saw the photos and could act. She said Cavett violated his contract, FERPA and board policy by failing to report the information he knew through proper channels, distributing personally identifiable information to someone beyond a “need to know” network, sharing photos that are characterized as harassment, refusing to tell the truth on multiple occasions and more.
District representation said Cavett’s conduct was not covered by whistleblower protections, as his actions did not fall under any of the three categories covered in protections. State whistleblower protections shield those who believe a law was broken or a constitutional right violated.
“Mr. Cavett will attempt to justify his misconduct in the name of protecting kids,” attorney Sean Rieger said in the administration’s opening statement. “...We don’t question that he’s ever lacked in that direction, but we know this act was horribly wrong, was morally wrong and constituted a violation of many laws and policies.”
Cavett said he took action from a place of concern for teacher safety and a knowledge that “open communication is not the district’s strength”; he recounted alleged incidents of sexual assault, chronic bullying and school vandalism at NHS that he felt weren’t communicated to parents and the NPS community as “endemic problems” that needed community solutions.
When Cavett shared the photos with a parent, he wrote, “I don’t trust NPS to not bury this. So, if these made it to the media, that’d be great.”
“I would never want to bury anything like that — student safety is of utmost concern,” NHS Principal Hallie Wright said during her testimony Friday.
Pixie Quigley, the parent who shared Cavett’s photos to the media, testified Friday that Cavett’s concerns were not unfounded.
“Norman Public Schools has had a history, a long history of, ‘image is everything,’” she said.
Cavett said that when threats reappeared on bathroom stalls, he did not hear about it from administration; he only heard about it as he prepared for the hearing.
Questioning Friday revealed the school administration and custodians covered the Feb. 17 graffiti quickly before school resource officers saw it, believing they had all the information they needed from initial photos administrators received.
Cavett told the board Friday that he lied to administrators multiple times — about how he had received the pictures, why he didn’t immediately send them to administration and who he shared them with — when questioned about his behavior, fearing retaliation from the district. He had previously received professional admonishment for sending profane messages that criticized the superintendent in a private teacher GroupMe chat, he said.
“I would say the majority of teachers at Norman High have experienced retaliation by the district,” Cavett told the board when member Alex Ruggiers asked if Cavett had heard of other teachers dealing with retaliation.
Wright said Cavett would not have been retaliated against had he shared photos with administrators immediately when asked, or had he shared concerns directly with administrators. She said she believes Cavett was not trying to keep students safe, but exercising a grudge against the district, especially in speaking to the media about his story.
“I think it was to humiliate and damage the reputation of Norman Public Schools,” Wright said of Cavett’s choice to speak with The Oklahoman.
When an administration attorney asked whether he prodded the district to take any additional action the day the threats surfaced, or whether he asked questions of administration about what they were doing to respond, Cavett said he did not — he shared the photos, he said, because in the hour between receiving the pictures and sharing them to a parent, he had only heard silence from administrators and had seen no action.
“The responsibility here is on the district administration,” Cavett said. “I was hoping that they would do the right thing, but they never have … I believe that the right thing would have been to conduct a lockout, let the police conduct their investigation and the school conduct their investigation with pertinent students.”
The district’s legal team argued that instead of advocating for safety, Cavett went against his duty to student safety and mental wellbeing by circulating a photo of graffiti that contained first names and last name initials of multiple students.
The Oklahoman reported after the Feb. 17 incident that in speaking to multiple students and parents of students named in the graffiti, multiple people interviewed said they were not embarrassed by having their names or their children’s names circulated in the graffiti, and were grateful for Cavett’s actions.
Parent Melissa Barnett said she perceived the list of girls’ names — with her daughter’s name on it — as a hitlist, and that she did not feel Cavett’s actions were harmful to her daughter. Barnett said her daughter was not offered counseling by the school and did not receive mental health check ins from anyone in her school, an issue Barnett said she raised to the school.
Barnett said her daughter’s assigned NHS counselor did not realize her daughter was on the list until the following week.
Barnett’s daughter stayed home from school Feb. 28, she said.
Board members questioned Cavett’s timeline, asking whether the hour-long time period between Cavett seeing the images and sharing the images was enough time for him to feel uncomfortable with the district’s response or believe NPS was covering the incident up. Cavett said his previous interactions with the district and mistrust in their communication made an hour enough.
“If you look at it from a pattern, it’s not an hour, it’s years,” Cavett said.
The board also interrogated Cavett on why he didn’t urgently communicate with SROs or administration during that hour if he feared for student safety. Cavett told them that he immediately communicated the threat to an assistant principal, who told him she was headed to the bathroom with school resource officers, and that he wasn’t sure who else to alert.
Wright said Friday that on learning about the graffiti, she immediately shared photos with school resource officers and supported their investigation, and that shortly after noon that day, the school began contacting parents of the affected students. Wright said on Feb. 17, she was not receiving any guidance or suggestions — from law enforcement or otherwise — that administration evacuate the school.
Wright said when she saw a parent’s social media post with pictures Cavett had shared, she was frustrated. The principal said she believes it was immoral for a teacher to share images with content like the graffiti in question; she also said she hadn’t seen Cavett’s photos before coming across Quigley’s’ Facebook post, and that those images could have been useful in NPS and NPD’s investigations.
“We’d been working on this all day, so this (post) angered me and I wished that we’d had some of this evidence — we needed this evidence,” Wright said. “There were pieces we had missed.”