Reports show poor communication between NPS, NPD; delay in graffiti investigation

·6 min read

Jun. 26—Reports of Norman police's response to racist and threatening graffiti found at Norman High School reveal significant communication lapses between the school district and officers and a week-long delay in the investigation.

NPD investigated graffiti students found inside a women's bathroom stall Feb. 17.

The graffiti listed students' first names with last initials, called them racial slurs and derogatory names, said homophobic slurs and degraded Black Lives Matter and Black History Month. It also said, "Shooting up this damn place 2/28/2022."

NPD school resource officer Neelon Greenwood deactivated the case May 16.

The graffiti drew public attention after former Norman High history teacher Richard Cavett leaked photos of the graffiti to an NPS parent.

Cavett said he leaked the photos because he didn't have faith in the district to do the right thing, based on past experience.

The NPS school board fired Cavett in a 4-1 vote June 17 on grounds that his actions violated his contract, FERPA and board policy because he didn't report the information through proper channels and later lied to the district when asked about the incident.

"Throughout the course of this situation, NPS has fully cooperated with NPD and provided it with any and all information we had in our possession," NPS spokesperson Wes Moody said in an emailed response to questions from The Transcript.

Norman police reports and testimony at Cavett's hearing last week revealed photos taken by faculty and given to NPD didn't include the racial slurs or the shooting threat.

NHS Principal Hallie Wright said she would have wanted to know about the racial slurs and threat. She discovered them when a parent posted the photos to social media after Cavett leaked them.

But according to NPD reports, the district began cleaning up the graffiti before police had a chance to look at it. Cavett's hearing showed that an assistant principal had a janitor begin covering the graffiti before she had thoroughly documented the writings.

Police didn't know about the racial slurs or shooting threat until a reporter reached out to the department with the photos.

Police reports also reveal NPD officers did not interview two of the girls threatened in the graffiti until a week after the investigation began.

The district also determined and announced to families that NHS was safe based on information provided by the SROs. That information was later walked back, Moody said.

NPD did not respond to questions emailed Wednesday about their communication with the school district and their investigation.

"If the school resource officer is employed by an outside agency, then they have a very different relationship than if they were employed by the school district," said Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green University who has studied the role of school resource officers in schools. "So it varies from place to place, but it's not uncommon that there's communication problems between the two entities."

The timeline

Police were told Feb. 17 that the graffiti had appeared in the stall that morning.

They were initially given a handful of photos of the graffiti — SRO Alex Webb said the district was already cleaning up the graffiti by the time they were told about it.

Police decided to call all the girls listed in the graffiti because they "could potentially develop a suspect that way," according to a report filed by detective Jonathon Jackson.

Jackson's report says he and two other officers spoke with four of the girls listed in the graffiti on Feb. 24, a week after the investigation opened, and four days before the date listed in the shooting threat. Officers had observed two of the girls listed in the threats had entered the bathroom at 8:30 a.m. that day.

NPD did not immediately respond to an emailed question about why it took a week from when the investigation began to interview the two girls.

Both girls listed a common suspect when asked who may have written the graffiti. Reports do not indicate NPD interviewed the suspect.

NPD initially reported there was not a "racial component" to the graffiti. But investigating officers learned about the racial slurs on Feb. 17 when former department spokesperson Sarah Jensen forwarded them an email between her and KFOR, just hours after the district gave police photos of the graffiti.

"The new photos contained racial slurs and clear threats," Webb said in a Feb. 22 report.

When Cavett shared the photos with the parent, he said he didn't trust NPS "to not bury" the graffiti, and encouraged the parent to give them to media outlets.

"I would never want to bury anything like that — student safety is of utmost concern," Wright said at Cavett's hearing.

On the day the graffiti was discovered, the district emailed parents to tell them there was no credible threat at NHS. But Superintendent Nick Migliorino sent another email Feb. 25 saying the district had "failed to confirm" with all relevant NPD parties that there was no threat.

Moody told The Transcript NPD officers at the school told school staff there was no immediate threat, which is what the district acted on.

Past allegations

NPS got statewide attention from the graffiti, but it isn't the first time they've been accused of neglecting students.

A 2015 lawsuit alleged NPS didn't respond to three students' reports of sexual harrasment and bullying. The lawsuit alleges all three students were sexually assaulted, and that the district didn't sufficiently respond to their claims in a way that would have ensured their safety.

The district agreed to pay each defendant $45,000 in settlements, according to court records.

An advocate for the students who sued the district said they would not speak to the press.

Cavett at his hearing said he lacked confidence in the school district's ability to handle past bullying and sexual assault allegations. He said at his hearing that one hour — the length of time between his initial receipt of the pictures and the time he sent them to a parent — was long enough for him to believe NPS was covering up the graffiti.

When asked if NPS has done anything to increase safety for female students since the 2015 lawsuit, Moody said the district has formed its Gender-Based Violence and Bullying Prevention & Response Task Force.

The task force is comprised of 24 school and district staff, subject matter experts, parents, community members and students who give input to the district about safety and student wellbeing, he said.

Moody called the task force "a first-in-the-nation program" that the district has invested in since its inception.

Max Bryan is the Transcript news editor and covers criminal justice and public safety for the newspaper. You may reach him at mbryan@normantranscript.com or @MBryanOK on Twitter.