Elite Oklahoma high school plagued by sexual harassment complaints

The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is seen in Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is seen in Oklahoma City.

When state auditors visited the campus of the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics for a routine review of its finances four years ago, female staff members saw an opening.

They seized the opportunity to describe an administrator whose autocratic leadership style gripped the campus of the public boarding school for years.

Lynn Morgan, the vice president of administrative services, had sex with women in his office, according to public records and interviews with former employees. Women he found attractive received more favorable office space, workloads and compensation, people who worked with him claimed. He screamed at staff, contractors and even students, the records showed.

With the auditor’s ear, the staff felt like someone was finally listening. In an unusual move, the audit’s top finding addressed the culture: “A harmful tone at the top of the agency.” School board Chairman Dan Little and board member Lance Benham gathered faculty and staff in the school’s auditorium and promised the culture would change. Employees had hope that conditions at the Oklahoma City school for academically gifted juniors and seniors would finally improve.

Morgan retired. But the harassment didn’t stop.

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Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch

An investigation by Oklahoma Watch found that women continued, for years, to report sexual harassment by other male staff at the school. One of the women filed a lawsuit in June. Oklahoma Watch talked to her and seven other current and former female employees who described a toxic and misogynistic culture at the school. Oklahoma Watch also reviewed hundreds of pages of public records and a federal employment complaint.

Sexual harassment is illegal and, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even teasing and offhand comments are illegal when it creates a hostile work environment or leads to an adverse employment decision, such as being fired or demoted.

What happened at OSSM, according to the lawsuit

According to the lawsuit, between 2016 and 2022:

  • Five female employees raised concerns about Bill Kuehl, a male administrator who made explicit comments about their bodies and sent a student inappropriate text messages. A mother complained after she went to Kuehl’s Venmo account to pay for a graduation cord and saw payments with the message “sexual favors.” He wasn’t fired, but quit last year to take a job out of state.

  • School leaders hired Jonathan Triplett, who court records show was accused of domestic violence by two ex-girlfriends and had been charged with driving under the influence. On staff, he threatened a female employee and a parent. He resigned last month.

  • Following a summer camp for high school math and science teachers, some reported that Mark Li, the professor who led the camp, made sexual comments.

  • Kurt Bachmann, a professor at the school, spoke sexually toward students, faculty and staff, and in particular asked female staff about their breast sizes multiple times. He drew concerns from parents and alumni for his comments. In records not in the lawsuit but obtained by Oklahoma Watch, a student’s father enclosed a note with a donation to the school’s foundation, asking the school to make sure the teacher retires “before he gets OSSM sued and/or completely embarrassed in the media.”

  • After the audit, school leaders hired a human resources specialist to address complaints but eliminated the position in 2021.

  • Two women received settlements from the school. Both were in leadership positions and were replaced by male employees.

The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics' sign is seen in Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics' sign is seen in Oklahoma City.

Keli Pueblo, who worked at OSSM for nearly seven years, filed the lawsuit against the school and the state, alleging gender discrimination, sex-based stereotypes, a hostile work environment and retaliation.

She said that after the audit, the culture never changed. Male faculty and staff were publicly celebrated, even after complaints of impropriety. And when they did leave, it was usually voluntarily, she said. The human resources specialist whose position was eliminated in 2021 said she was intimidated into not pursuing complaints.

Little, the chairman, said the school worked diligently to address the problems over the years and, in some cases, hired an outside investigator to assist them.

“It took longer than I hoped to address the problems, but the problems were addressed,” said Little, 80, an attorney whose storied Democratic family includes son-in-law Paul Ryan, former U.S. House speaker. The school’s residence hall, where students live in supervised dorm rooms, is named for Little, and his family is a top donor.

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The state Legislature established the school in 1983 as a state agency with a 25-member governing board, independent of the state’s public school system. Little is the first and only chairman and has held the post for 37 years under six governors.

Little negotiated Morgan’s departure after the audit. Morgan was allowed to retire with benefits.

The school, in its initial response to the lawsuit, denied female employees were treated disparately and said it’s untrue the men accused of harassment were not disciplined or fired.

In 2022, the school’s interim president, Edna Manning, demoted Pueblo to secretary and then fired her, despite exceptional performance reviews. Pueblo said she was on approved leave at the time; the school said she resigned by not showing up.

“I’ve been wronged,” Pueblo told Oklahoma Watch. “It ruined my life.”

At least nine other women have either resigned due to the working conditions or been fired in recent years, according to Pueblo’s lawsuit and interviews with seven of the women, some of whom asked not to be identified because they fear they will lose their jobs. One said she signed a non-disclosure agreement with the school and could not comment.

Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics an elite school

Tucked behind a gate on 32 tree-studded acres just south of the Capitol, the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics draws high-achieving 11th- and 12th-graders with rigorous courses like calculus and microbiology and organic chemistry. The class of 2023 scored an average 30.6 on the ACT out of a possible 36, about the 94th percentile, a datapoint that helps vault the school to the top of online rankings.

But even one of the school’s most touted achievements — a top ranking on the Niche website, this year at 18th best public high school in the U.S., out of 20,000 schools — is sullied by harassment allegations. An anonymous review on the site written by a senior in 2022 reads: “OSSM also lacks proper channels for reporting harassment from administration/professors; student complaints are rarely taken seriously.”

It’s free for Oklahoma students to attend because it’s publicly funded. The school received $6.5 million from the state for 2023-24. Ninety-five students attended that year, according to a school profile, a taxpayer expense of more than $68,000 per student that includes room and board.

Student enrollment is well below what lawmakers envisioned; the inaugural class had 58 students, but school leaders expected a future student body of 300, according to an undated brochure provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Its public funding is supplemented by donations from the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics Foundation, which in 2021 was worth more than $17 million, tax records show. The foundation’s donors include philanthropists, private foundations and alumni, many of whom are doctors and scientists.

Lawmakers in the 1980s surmounted opposition to create the prestigious high school for advanced learning, similar to one in North Carolina. Old newspaper articles show public school leaders and others feared it would cost too much and rob high schools of their best students.

Detailing OSSM's troubles at the top

In recent years, the face of the school has been Frank Wang, a mathematician who was named the school’s president in 2012. Wang, who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, often visited the Capitol, wearing a bowtie, pocket protector and a smile. Wang reluctantly accepted the president position after the school’s first president and founder said she’d delay her retirement until he was ready to accept.

As president, staff complained to Wang about vice president for administrative services Lynn Morgan’s inappropriate behavior. But Wang told Oklahoma Watch he didn’t feel like he had the authority to fire Morgan, the school’s first employee under former president, Edna Manning.

Morgan smoked cigarettes outside on school grounds for six years after he announced the school’s no-smoking policy, public records show.

Once, when Morgan’s daughter was a student at the school, Morgan fired a teacher who took the girl’s phone away in class, multiple former staff members confirmed. The teacher lived on campus and had to move out immediately over the Thanksgiving break.

Morgan had affairs with at least three women who worked for him, according to the lawsuit. Those women received special treatment, like higher pay and nicer office space, the plaintiff alleged. Once, after a staffer ended a romantic relationship with him, he delayed her access to a needed piece of software for nearly two years, according to auditors’ notes obtained through the Open Records Act.

On Pueblo’s first day on the job, she recalled, a woman visited Morgan in his office and he closed the door. She later smelled Irish Spring; his office space included a private shower. The incident was confirmed by multiple sources.

An employee in 2018 pleaded with auditors: “If you have any power to intervene, I beg you to. If that level of intervention is beyond your purview, I ask that you reach out to whatever external agency is in charge of executive-level abusers.”

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The top audit finding was a “harmful tone at the top of the agency” perpetuated by Morgan. School administrators placed Morgan on leave and hired an investigator.

But Wang, who was president at the time, had a non-confrontational management style.

“I was not the type of boss that was a very authoritarian type of boss,” Wang said. “I tended to do it more by counseling.”

When a student reported to Wang that his teacher was in love with him, Wang said he confronted the teacher, drove him to the airport and bought him a plane ticket out of Oklahoma. Wang said he only fired two people during his tenure; that teacher was one.

Oklahoma Watch could not find contact information for the teacher.

Wang said he approached inappropriate behavior gently and tried to nudge those staffers to move on, but made it clear that if the behavior repeated, they would be out of a job.

Along with his conflict avoidance, Wang was generous, and staff liked working for him. Multiple people described times when Wang opened his wallet to cover expenses on behalf of the school, or to reward good work, or to smooth over a conflict. When an ice storm knocked out power at the school, he put the students in a Hilton hotel for a week, Pueblo said.

“He’d do Oprah stuff,” Pueblo said. “Like he’d be in a staff meeting and he’s like, everyone’s getting hundreds, he’s passing them out. Like it was crazy stuff with Dr. Wang, but what a wonderful guy to work with.”

As an example of disparate employment decisions, Pueblo’s lawsuit points to a residence hall director hired in 2021. When Pueblo was asked to check the background of one of the candidates, Jonathan Triplett, she found two emergency victim protective orders by former girlfriends, accusing him of domestic violence in 2012 and 2013.

Court records also showed a ticket for driving more than 40 miles per hour over the speed limit and a misdemeanor DUI.

Pueblo told administrators he was not a good candidate for the job overseeing students, that there were a lot of red flags. The school hired Triplett despite her concerns.

Once, Triplett threatened a female employee after she left his name off a graduation program, which the school admitted in its lawsuit response. Triplett is also accused of regularly calling Wang an expletive in front of students, parents, employees and the public, and threatened a parent, both claims the school denies.

Wang said he required Triplett to take an online anger management course.

In May, Triplett pleaded guilty to the DUI charge and received a deferred sentence. The school promoted him to dean of students. He resigned at the end of July, according to an attorney representing him, who said he submitted a notice to sue the school over his departure.

One of the main fixes the school agreed to make after the 2019 audit was to create a human resources position to address staff complaints and implement new policies to improve the workplace. Wang hired Kari Kuykendall in 2020. She said she was intimidated and retaliated against for pursuing harassment complaints.

“I intend to be HR, not be the appearance of HR,” Kuykendall wrote in an October 2020 email to Wang outlining difficulties she was experiencing implementing reforms at the school.

The next year, school leaders eliminated the human resources position and let Kuykendall go. Little, the board chair, said having a human resources specialist “didn’t seem to solve any problems.”

School board agendas from June and July include an item to discuss employee demand letters and internal investigations. The July meeting was never called to order because the agenda was not made public at least 24 hours in advance, as required by law.

The dozen or so board members from across the state still gathered in a room where they listened to a presentation about how to create a strategic plan for the school.

The board appointed a new president this year. Tony Cornforth, who started teaching math at the school in 2002 and has also led the school’s regional center in Wayne, did not agree to an interview on the advice of the attorney general’s office.

He provided this written statement in an Aug. 16 email: “Please be assured, however, that as we begin our new third chapter, I know that I, as the new President, am absolutely committed to continuing a professional, positive, and healthy workplace at OSSM and that I have the full support of the OSSM Governing Board in doing so. OSSM has always and will always set and meet the highest workplace standards.”

Pueblo said when the school fired her, she lost her health insurance right away and had to cancel a scheduled surgery. She spent 26 weeks on unemployment and just this summer found work again.

“There is a closet full of skeletons at OSSM and it remains a dangerous place for women to work and students to live and attend,” she said.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OSSM, elite OKC school, faces suit over sexual harassment complaints