The Justice Department is suing Oklahoma City Public Schools on behalf of an Air Force reservist, alleging the school system barred him from resuming his job as a teacher after he returned from deployment.

By refusing to reinstate Senior Airman Michael McCullough to a teaching position, DOJ officials alleged in a legal complaint Wednesday, the school district is in violation of federal law — the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994. USERRA requires employers to promptly reemploy anyone returning from more than 90 days of military service to their same position or an equivalent one.

This is the second time McCullough has had to fight for reemployment at OKCPS after leaving for military duty, DOJ said in the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. The school district “was aware of USERRA’s reemployment and anti-discriminatory provisions,” the complaint said.

“This lawsuit reinforces the Justice Department’s strong commitment to protecting the rights of those who wear the uniform proudly,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a release. “USERRA provides important reemployment protections, and we must act when any employer denies them an opportunity to earn a living because they are called to duty.”

OKCPS officials said their legal team is reviewing the lawsuit but declined to provide further comment.

“The district will work through the legal process accordingly,” officials said.

McCullough began teaching music at Oklahoma City’s Fillmore Elementary School on Jan. 3, 2022, and was under contract for the remainder of the school year, according to the complaint.

A month later, he received unexpected written orders to report for duty beginning Feb. 14, 2022, DOJ said.

When he informed his principal of that immediate requirement, the complaint said, she responded by email: “I’m trying to wrap my mind around this and I’m very concerned. So I’m paying you all year and have to have a sub? It would make it so much easier to fill this with a music teacher if you resign. But this is your choice.”

McCullough also informed the district’s employee relations department of his military orders.

On March 10, 2022, McCullough received a letter from the school district informing him that his contract would not be renewed. Regardless, he emailed human relations personnel and others in April of his intent to return, and asked where he would be teaching.

In July, the airman emailed OCPS to share that his orders had been extended through Dec. 30, 2022, but that he could return to teaching after the Christmas break.

But McCullough wasn’t reinstated, and was told he had to apply for positions through the normal teacher recruitment process. He filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), which opened an investigation into the airman’s troubles and concluded in June 2023 that OKCPS had violated federal law.

After VETS unsuccessfully tried to reach a resolution with the school district, the case was referred to the Justice Department.

In the midst of that fight, McCullough in April 2022 settled with the school district on a different USERRA matter: another refusal to allow him to return to teaching following a separate deployment the previous year.

He had worked as a band teacher at Capitol Hill Middle School during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, then left for military training in April 2021. He requested reemployment when he returned, but wasn’t offered an employment contract for the 2021-2022 school year.

Justice officials are asking the district court to require OCPS to compensate McCullough for lost wages and other benefits, including retirement benefits; to employ McCullough in the music teacher position he had before he left for military service, or an equivalent position; and to award extra damages as an apology for multiple refusals to reemploy him after military service.

Though the complaint doesn’t list McCullough’s current military job, a 2022 Air Force release noted McCullough joined the service in 2021 and worked in avionics at the 513th Maintenance Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

The senior airman was so determined to join the Air Force, the release said, that he lost more than 200 pounds while navigating a troublesome iron deficiency, the military medical waiver process and a divorce.

“My whole life, I take those struggles and obstacles and change them into opportunities. As a teacher, that’s what I teach my students, because we’re always going to have those struggles,” McCullough, who worked as the Capitol Hill Middle band director at the time, said in the 2022 release. “But they don’t have to be struggles. You can use them as a platform to go someplace.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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