shane murnan, western heights
Western Heights' John Glenn Elementary School Principal Shane Murnan is also the award-winning drag queen Shantel Mandalay. (NonDoc)

Shane Murnan has worked in Oklahoma public education for 26 years while also racking up awards as the colorful drag queen Shantel Mandalay, a persona he adopts on evenings and weekends as self-described therapy and performance art.

Recently, however, Murnan’s theatrical side has made national headlines highlighting the classroom culture war emphasized by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who took the national stage of Fox News twice last week to criticize the new elementary principal at Western Heights Public Schools.

The attention has left Murnan frustrated and withdrawn from social media, and it has placed Western Heights back in the spotlight nine months after the State Board of Education returned local control to the troubled district.

Now, Murnan has broken his silence to discuss his history as a teacher, a drag performer and a man once again explaining a dismissed child pornography charge from 20 years ago that he says stemmed from bias against gay educators.

So far, leaders of the southwest Oklahoma City school district have defended their hiring decision and have fielded questions from parents about Murnan, who said he has received death threats and vile messages from people around the country.

“Lots of hate, considering I’ve been the same person for 26 years doing the same thing,” Murnan said in an interview with NonDoc. “And it’s not like I’m quiet about it. I’m very open with who I am. I don’t hide who I am.”

Walters: ‘I’ve heard from parents all over the state’

The Western Heights Public Schools Board of Education is set to meet at 6 p.m. today in Council Grove Elementary School, one of the district’s four elementary sites. In June, the board approved hiring Murnan as the new principal of John Glenn Elementary School after he spent last year working as an assistant principal in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Monday’s meeting agenda features a public comment period and a possible vote to create a parent-teacher association at John Glenn Elementary, but no agenda item directly relates to the controversy surrounding Murnan’s employment. Murnan said Wednesday he was unsure whether he would attend the meeting, but social media posts indicate there could be a rally showing him support, something he says Western Heights Superintendent Brayden Savage has done so far.

“I have had no negative comeback from any of my administration,” he said. “They’ve been nothing but supportive of me.”

Still, since controversy spread about his drag character, Murnan said he has chosen to pause his performances at the weekly Sunday Brunch Revival at The Boom, a prominent gay bar in northwest Oklahoma City.

“I’ve stepped back because, like I said, my first priority is my school and my job,” he said. “I just thought I probably needed to take a break and evaluate how life is right now and take a break for myself, because I can’t keep living like I am right now with all the threats.”

Murnan said he has been harassed online by people unaffiliated with Western Heights since details about his drag persona, his new job and a 2001 arrest appeared Aug. 29 in a Substack newsletter called V1SUT.

“I’ve had threat after threat after threat against my life,” Murnan said. “Lots and lots of hate commentary.”

Walters, who has highlighted “liberal teachers” and gender identity issues as political foils since running for office in 2022, has posted numerous videos and statements to social media regarding the situation. He has appeared on Fox News twice to discuss Murnan, most recently with primetime host Jesse Watters on Saturday.

“This is Joe Biden’s vision for America,” Walters said. “Drag queens running schools, kids being told there are 27 genders, kids being told they are racist because of the color of their skin, kids being told that America is an evil country.”

Walters, who chairs the State Board of Education and who has sought to revoke the teaching certificate of a former Norman Public Schools’ educator following a book brouhaha, told the TV show host that he wants to see Murnan fired.

“I’ve heard from parents all over the state,” Walters said. “They want this principal out of the school, and I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that that happens.”

Murnan: Dismissed 2001 charge ‘was a witch hunt’

Shane Murnan dismissal
A 2001 charge of possession of child pornography against educator Shane Murnan was dismissed after a pair of judges said prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to move forward with the case. (Screenshot)

Criticism of Murnan online and from Watters, the Fox News host, has emphasized other background details about the new Western Heights principal. More than two decades ago, Murnan faced a child pornography charge that was ultimately dropped after two judges said prosecutors lacked the evidence necessary to move forward.

The same June night that Murnan was hired by Western Heights, the district posted a statement on Facebook acknowledging the 2001 case’s 2003 dismissal without stating the type of charge.

“Recently, the district has been made aware of previous charges that were dismissed more than 20 years ago,” the post stated. “Dr. Murnan has been serving the field of education for more than 25 years and has an outstanding reputation. He comes highly recommended from previous supervisors, colleagues, and educators.”

According to reports from The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World at the time, Murnan was arrested in August 2001 and charged with possession of child pornography. A judge initially declined to have Murnan stand trial following a February 2002 preliminary hearing, saying prosecutors lacked evidence to move forward.

But Payne County District Attorney Robert Hudson’s office appealed, and Judge Dave Allen said in March 2002 that “it is clear from a review of the pictures that they do represent child pornography.” Murnan’s attorney disagreed, saying “these were not small children” and arguing that it was far from clear the pictures depicted minors.

A year later, however, District Judge Donald Worthington agreed with the first judge and dismissed the case, again saying prosecutors could not prove Murnan was in possession of deleted images recovered from his computer, nor that the images were of individuals under age 18.

A graduate of Oklahoma State University who grew up in Noble, Murnan was a fifth-grade teacher in Stillwater Public Schools at the time. Police seized his home computer and other equipment after they reportedly received two tips from community members. Two weeks later, he was arrested.

“It was a witch hunt,” Murnan said Wednesday of the dismissed case, records for which have been expunged. “Back in that time, being gay was not acceptable. I mean, that was (nearly) 25 years ago. And being gay wasn’t acceptable.”

At the time, Murnan maintained that he had acquired the pictures by accident and promptly deleted them.

According to reporting from the Tulsa World, Stillwater detective Les Little testified at the initial 2002 hearing that Murnan “said he was on the internet at night. A guy asked him if he wanted to see photos. He said his computer was set on automatic, and he automatically received it. He said he didn’t like that, didn’t want to look at it, and deleted it.”

A fellow teacher testified that Murnan had told her about receiving “12 photos of a young boy and an older gentleman having sex.” Despite dismissing the case, Special District Judge Phillip Corley told Murnan it was his “personal opinion that you should be nowhere around young children.”

In 2002, more people held that “personal opinion” simply because he was gay, Murnan said, noting that allegations received by Stillwater Public Schools and the police came after he had attempted to adopt a son, which was not legal for LGBTQ community members at the time.

“They never asked me if I was gay,” Murnan said of the adoption process. “I went through all the parenting classes and all the background checks — did everything — and they just never asked me if I was gay, and I never told them. And so right before my whole adoption was certified and I was going to get to pick him up, one of my coworkers — I found out later — had called them anonymously and told them that I was gay. And so, they terminated my adoption, and I lost my little boy because she hated me because I was gay.”

Murnan said another allegation came after he was selected to interview for a principal position.

“I went for the interview, and I came home, and my house was surrounded by police tape,” Murnan recalled. “I had beat this teacher out that I had worked with for a principal’s position interview. And when I came home, I found out later that she had concocted this story about me that I was running a child porn operation. And they ransacked my house and tore through everything.”

Murnan said that although police eventually found four gay pornography images that had been deleted from his computer, prosecutors could not prove they were examples of child porn.

“They threw it out and they got it expunged because they were trying to create something in a scenario that there wasn’t (anything),” he said.

Suspended from Stillwater Public Schools while the charge was pending, Murnan said he stayed with the district “to prove a point” until the case was dismissed in August 2002.

Western Heights Superintendent Brayden Savage again defended the district’s hiring of Murnan in a letter sent to parents and released on social media Aug. 30, this time acknowledging the nature of the dismissed case.

“Since that time, Dr. Murnan has continued to be certified as an elementary school teacher and principal, including having his certificate renewed in April of 2023 and signed by State Superintendent Ryan Walters,” Savage wrote. “The State Department of Education would have conducted another felony background check upon renewing his certification. Please know we are aware of the situation and handling this matter with the utmost attention and care. The greatest priority of Western Heights Public Schools is providing a safe learning environment for our students.”

Despite appearing twice on Fox News to discuss the situation, Walters has avoided discussing the dismissed 2001 charge directly. Walters is already facing a pair of lawsuits from a former OSDE employee and former Norman High School teacher Summer Boismier, about whom he made critical statements when she shared a QR code that provides access to books, including one called Gender Queer.

On Facebook, drag queens Shantel Mandalay and Carmen Devereaux were excited about the start of a new school year. (Screenshot)

“The liberal media wants to pretend like this isn’t happening,” Walters said on Fox News. “We not only have a drag queen here (…) running the school, we found out that this individual has hired another drag queen to work at the school with these kids. This has to stop. It’s liberal insanity.”

Walters was referring to Western Heights’ reported July hiring of another employee whose drag persona is Carmen Deveraux. Asked for Devearux’s contact information, Murnan said the individual “is not talking right now” and is obtaining legal counsel.

Board member: ‘Teachers would revolt’ if Murnan removed

Although Shantel Mandalay is more broadly known for adult-venue performances and several years serving as emcee for the Oklahoma City pride parade, Fox News and other outlets have also highlighted Murnan’s 15-minute video as Shantel Mandalay for the Metropolitan Library System’s “Pride Online Storytime.”

Murnan said his appearances for drag story hours were initially ticketed events requiring parental approval for underage attendees. He said he was eventually approached by the Metropolitan Library System about bringing Shantel Mandalay to their platform during the pandemic, and video of a June 2021 story time is posted on the MLS Facebook page. Six people commented on the video, with five praising Murnan’s message and one calling it “absolutely disgusting.”

“It doesn’t matter what color you are, or where you’re from or who’s in your family. Everyone needs to be loved. Always love yourself and be who you are. The end,” Mandalay read at the conclusion of one book before offering her own advice. “When I was a little drag queen, I was scared and I was nervous. And then I realized, it’s OK to be who I am and love myself.”

In his interview with NonDoc, Murnan said he originally began performing drag when he was coming out as gay, embracing the historically rebellious art form as a “therapeutic” practice in safe community spaces. Broader acceptance of LGBTQ identities has allowed Murnan to portray Mandalay in different settings, but he said he attempts to tailor the persona to the audience at hand.

Similarly, he said he has tried to distinguish his professional worlds.

“I’ve always kept my personal life and my second job separated from my educational career. I don’t talk about it,” Murnan said. “Anytime it’s ever been discussed, it’s been after my contract hours. A lot of my teachers have seen me (in drag) and didn’t realize it was me.”

In her Aug. 30 letter to Western Heights community members, Savage did not discuss Murnan’s extensive career as a drag performer. Asked Friday, district spokesperson Chris Culver said Savage stands by her prior statement and had nothing to add.

Western Heights Board of Education member Brayden Hunt said he was absent from the June meeting where Murnan was hired and only learned about the new principal’s drag persona after the fact. Still, he said the other board members were aware and that he would have joined their unanimous vote to approve the contract.

“As long as it’s separate, and as long as what you do in your personal life is within the bounds of the law, there’s no reason for us to not hire you because of that,” Hunt said.

According to Hunt, district teachers and administrators have had nothing but good things to say since Murnan became principal.

“We feel that he’s doing a really good job. The people that evaluate him feel that he’s doing a really good job,” Hunt said. “They feel also that (…) we wouldn’t be able to move off of him as an administrator because the teachers would revolt. Teachers would be very upset with us.”

For his part, Murnan said Wednesday he had not heard directly from parents about the controversy. Asked what he would say to a concerned parent, Murnan said he is a committed education professional with graduate degrees who works hard and stays up to date with curriculum changes and classroom best practices.

“I went to school to become an educator, and my goal is what’s best for children,” he said.

Murnan, who is beginning his fifth year in administration, said student safety is extremely important and that he tells his teachers that any report about inappropriate campus behavior must be handled immediately.

“Society has changed. It’s a lot different, you know? Back whenever I was a child, you could walk down the street and play with the neighbor kids,” Murnan said. “I mean, it’s dangerous now. You don’t know if there’s gonna be a drive-by shooting or what. Society has changed for the worse sometimes. So their protection is very important. We we went from where we could have parents in the building all the time when I was a student — it was an open-door policy — and now we’re down to lockdown, and you have to be buzzed in or have a badge. So child safety is very, very important.”

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Walters tells Fox News ‘the left’ is ‘at war with our kids’

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters greets members of the State Board of Education before a meeting on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. (Bennett Brinkman)

Although Walters has largely refrained from mentioning Murnan by name, he has also appeared on Fox News to say Murnan is not fit to lead John Glenn Elementary School and that he should not be employed by the district.

In his Sept. 7 Fox News appearance, Walters implied Murnan is part of a “leftist” and “Marxist” conspiracy to brainwash kids and give Democrats greater control of the country.

“When you step into that realm as an adult, and you are involved in that kind of behavior, it’s absolutely not appropriate to then go into work with somebody’s young kids. You’ve crossed a line there and you’re at a point where you need to go find another job. You don’t need to be working alongside young people,” Walters said. “I think that the left has absolutely an agenda for our kids. They are at war with our kids in the classroom, and what they are doing is injecting this ideology for an end goal here. Their end goal is to absolutely break down a child’s mind, break down the classroom, break down the family, and you see the results that have come from this.”

Walters alleged that Democrats and others are using “gender ideology” to separate kids from their parents.

“They want kids to turn on their parents and only listen to their leftist ideology. And how do you do it? You start putting these fissures and you start breaking them apart and say, ‘Listen, you’re gender fluid. Listen, you can change your pronouns. Listen, look at this sexual material,'” Walters said. “And when the kid takes it home and their parent is outraged by it, the kids turn on their parents. This is absolutely trying to break down that family unit, so the kid is more susceptible to the most radical, Marxist gender ideology we’ve ever seen to pit groups of people against each other, and, frankly, it’s to create Democrat voters.”

It’s unclear whether the State Board of Education will review Murnan’s teaching certificate, on which Walters’ signature appears.

“As Supt. Walters stated in his video on the subject, Western Heights needs to act and act appropriately,” Dan Isett, OSDE’s new director of communications, said in an email.

Isett did not respond to a question about what “act appropriately” means in this situation.

Asked what he would like to say to Walters, Murnan repeated the sentiment of many of the state superintendent’s detractors.

“He needs to focus on getting quality education here and quit trying to run people off,” Murnan said, citing the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.

Murnan, who has achieved nine different drag titles during the course of his performance career, added that he has always felt supported by his school district employers.

“I always looked at it as like a theater-production type of thing,” Murnan said. “I mean, if I was working on stage at Lyric — I don’t see any difference — I’ve been working at a dinner theater at The Boom, and I work all the time. And it’s a job. It’s not — I’m not out preaching anything. It’s another source of income, and I always like to perform and be on stage.”

(Editor’s note: Western Heights Superintendent Brayden Savage is of no relation to NonDoc editor in chief Tres Savage. This article was updated at 10:35 a.m. Monday, Sept. 11, to clarify the current name of the Sunday brunch performances at The Boom. It was updated again at 11:10 a.m. to correct a reference to drag story hours.)