(Editor’s note: The following article about the resignation of Shane Murnan from Western Heights Public Schools includes a photo featuring hateful language aimed at LGBTQ individuals.)
Staff members at Western Heights’ John Glenn Elementary School listened quietly in the cafeteria during a Dec. 15 meeting as district Superintendent Brayden Savage read remarks from a sheet of paper about the “political and media issues surrounding Dr. Murnan.”
“We are no longer under fire like we were in the beginning,” Savage told staff members. “However, we are still receiving hate calls, emails and letters, as well as continued tabloid articles, which although are not credible resources, continue to be shared far and wide.”
The meeting occurred three months after elementary school principal Shane Murnan had been thrust into national headlines because of his side gig as the award-winning drag queen “Shantel Mandalay” and a 20-year-old child pornography charge that had been dismissed and expunged for a lack of evidence.
Murnan’s separate roles as an educator and a drag performer had provoked the ire of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who called for Murnan to be fired and tried to pressure Western Heights into doing so.
At the Dec. 15 staff meeting, Savage told teachers that she had been “called to Ryan Walters’ office” to discuss Murnan on Dec. 8.
“It seems like three years ago, but I believe it was last week. He rescheduled the meeting four times,” Savage said of Walters. “Initially, I was unsure of why, and, actually, I really was naïve enough to hope that it was because of holiday tutoring that he was calling me in there. As I should have expected, he called me in to remind me of his stance. And then I did boldly remind him of what our stance was.”
At the time, the district had been supporting Murnan. Somewhere along the line, however, Savage adjusted her stance.
“After she spoke with Walters and had her meeting, that’s when everything changed,” Murnan said Thursday, six days after he submitted a “forced” resignation Jan. 26.
Against the wishes of his now-former district and his own attorney, Murnan provided a recording of the Dec. 15 meeting and spoke to NonDoc about five months of drama that included two stints on administrative leave, a pair of building reassignments, violent threats, protests at school board meetings featuring homophobic signage and a final ultimatum from Western Heights administrators: resign or be fired.
“It really makes me angry because all this time, [Savage] told me she was supporting me and she wasn’t going to fire me,” Murnan said. “She supported me multiple times with multiple people as witnesses in the room. And then she [said] I have a choice to be terminated or resign.”
‘Very open with who I am’: Western Heights principal defends drag queen alter ego by Bennett Brinkman & Tres Savage
Irritated after an entire semester officing outside of the elementary school for which he was serving as principal, Murnan submitted his resignation Jan. 26. Shortly thereafter, Savage tried to “update” it to include a confidentiality agreement because he had talked to reporters with the Wall Street Journal about his situation, Murnan said.
“That pisses me off. [If I didn’t talk] that’s a one-sided story that goes out, and it makes me look like an idiot,” Murnan said. “I’m tired of being made into their little game pawn.”
Murnan, 52, refused to sign the confidentiality agreement. The Western Heights School Board is not scheduled to meet until Feb. 12, at which time board members are expected to consider Murnan’s resignation.
Brayden Hunt, a board member who said in September that teachers “would revolt” if Murnan were fired, did not respond to a phone call seeking comment. Similarly, Chris Culver, who serves as Western Heights’ director of communications and who has also worked for a drag pageant organization, said he relayed NonDoc’s request for comment to Savage, but neither he nor the superintendent responded prior to publication of this article.
Savage called the situation “heartbreaking” in comments to Adolfo Flores and Matt Barnum of the Wall Street Journal, who first reported Murnan’s resignation.
‘I’m not caving to Ryan Walters, but (…) the hate has not stopped’
Savage held the Dec. 15 meeting with John Glenn staff to inform them Murnan would likely not be returning to the building for the remainder of the school year. Although he had not yet resigned, Murnan had been barred from the building while students were inside since August.
“We hired Shane based on the wonderful gifts that he has for helping educate students. We did not have anything to do with the articles, or the backlash, just like none of you did,” Savage said in the meeting. “We wanted to give John Glenn a principal — a great principal. We had hoped that things would turn out much differently. We had hoped we would be able to bring Shane back. Things have not turned out like we had hoped for.”
Savage told staff members what she had been telling Murnan for months — that her unwillingness to let Murnan back in his building was due to the constant threats the district had been receiving.
“I’m not caving to Ryan Walters, but I have to ultimately keep the students and the staff of this school safe. The hate has not stopped. To bring Shane back to the building is a risk to safety for all,” Savage said. “I cannot be totally sure that one of those crazies would not show up to ‘cleanse the building,’ which is something that I’ve seen over and over again and something that we’ve heard over and over again.”
But Murnan said he stopped receiving threats around October, and he said John Glenn Elementary School had not received any threats — to his knowledge — since that time as well.
“I don’t know that [Savage] was receiving threats. I think she’s scared of Ryan Walters, but that’s just (…) my personal opinion,” Murnan said.
Savage told Murnan and some journalists that the district’s extra costs for employing security and a substitute principal spurred the decision to part ways with Murnan. Savage described it as a “terrible, tragic situation” to The Oklahoman, which referred to Murnan as a “drag queen principal” in its headline.
Murnan, who has emphasized that he never performed as Shantel Mandalay at school, questioned Savage’s claim about security costs.
“There hasn’t been extra security at my building. I’ve asked,” Murnan said.
Murnan said another staff member, Paul Stafford, questioned Savage during the Dec. 15 meeting about why he was allowed in the building while Murnan was not. Stafford is also a drag performer who goes by the name “Carmen Deveraux” and who has also been targeted by an anonymous newsletter that dubbed Western Heights as “Oklahoma’s drag queen school district.”
“This situation has brought out the very worst in many individuals,” Savage said at the staff meeting. “And I’ve never read so many hateful things — hateful and ugly things — and I’m not quite sure how people can act this way.”
Murnan said Stafford also resigned in January after being given the option to quit or be fired. Stafford did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
“It makes no sense to me, because I’m the same person I was when I started working there,” Murnan said.
Several Western Heights employees make headlines
A 3,200-student district in southwest Oklahoma City, Western Heights Public Schools has faced a litany of investigations, criticisms and allegations in recent years. An “incestuous culture” allowed former board Chairman Robert Everman to support a lucrative contract for his longtime business partner, Mannix Barnes, to be superintendent.
Barnes was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars while he was suspended for school deficiencies, and the State Department of Education briefly took over operations of the troubled district. A separate board member was seen drinking beer on Zoom during a public meeting, and the district ultimately paid Barnes $150,000 to settle pending legal claims. An investigative audit from that time is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, a teacher named Micah Nall is facing criminal charges related to the Kingfisher football abuse scandal. Despite documentation that Nall was violating a plea agreement by coaching at Western Heights, Savage’s administration maintains that he has only been a “football analyst” and not a coach. Nall was placed on administrative leave after being charged with perjury and child abuse Oct. 17.
John Glenn Elementary School had also been under fire because Murnan and the district hired Hao Jiang, a paraprofessional who was confronted by a “predator prevention” group for sending sexual messages to a profile he believed to be of a 15-year-old boy. Jiang has not been charged with a crime despite a police investigation.
In his interview Thursday, Murnan briefly alluded to Nall’s legal troubles, and he said he was “shocked” to read about Jiang’s actions with a purported teenager.
Caught thinking he was sexting 15-year-old boy, Western Heights employee resigns by Bennett Brinkman
“I had worked with Mr. Jiang for seven years, and I’d worked with Mr. Stafford for four, and I never had any issues with them,” Murnan said. “The parents loved them. The staff loved them. They were incredible employees. And I never had any problems with either one of them. And I was quite shocked about the Mr. Jiang situation. As for Mr. Stafford, he’s still an incredible employee, but they forced him out as well.”
Walters’ spokesman, Dan Isett, did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication of this article, but he appeared to scold Murray Evans of The Oklahoman for asking if Walters felt responsibility for Western Heights allegedly having to hire extra security owing to the threats against the district.
“Superintendent Walters demanded that the school take action and fire a drag queen who used social media to recruit students,” Isett said. “Western Heights should never have brought a drag queen into a school. This is not a controversy; it is common sense. Walters will not allow Oklahoma schools to become a training ground in drag queen propaganda.”
Isett continued with further media criticism, a tactic often employed by Walters since he took office 13 months ago.
“Finally, it is absurd to think that Walters supporters are somehow inherently dangerous to the point of requiring extra security and is a slander,” Isett told The Oklahoman. “I’m surprised you’re even mentioning.”
Thirty minutes after publication of this article, Isett emailed a statement from Walters, who also posted a video online praising Murnan’s departure as “a great day for Oklahoma schools.”
“I demanded the school take action and fire a drag queen who not only engaged in the most inappropriate and sexually charged events imaginable, but he also used social media to recruit students,” said Walters in the statement. “Exposing Murnan and forcing the resignation is a necessary step to protect kids in Oklahoma. Our students will be protected from predatory behavior, and I have been crystal clear that I will not allow Oklahoma schools to become a training ground in drag queen propaganda.”
Asked what “used social media to recruit students” meant, Isett declined to give specifics but said the posts were easy to find online.
Murnan called that part of the statement “incorrect,” saying he had simply posted June 12 on his Shantel Mandalay Facebook account requesting bilingual adults interested in “[making] a difference in the lives of children” to message him.
Murnan ‘frustrated with the whole situation’
When Murnan’s award-winning drag persona became national news in September, he said in an interview with NonDoc that he felt supported by Western Heights even though he had only joined the small district in June.
“They’ve been nothing but supportive of me,” Murnan said Sept. 6.
The national attention brought threats against Murnan and district leadership, and Walters eventually announced a State Department of Education investigation into Murnan’s teaching certificate and Western Heights’ accreditation status.
Reflecting on his situation, Murnan said he now has a different view of how Western Heights administrators responded.
“I felt very disrespected, because I was passed around and hidden from office to office. I was allowed in other school buildings, but I wasn’t allowed in my own,” Murnan said. “I felt like I was just an abandoned child being hid in the attic just to get through things, because I don’t think they knew what they wanted to do or how to do it. I appreciated the opportunities to get to work, but it didn’t make sense, and a lot of people didn’t understand — even my staff had questioned why I was allowed in the building at other places, but not allowed in my own.”
Murnan maintained that he has been treated unfairly throughout the ordeal, which also involved revelation of a September 2020 DUI arrest that does not appear to have been prosecuted.
“I’m frustrated with the whole situation because I haven’t done anything wrong. I did my job. I did my job well, and I have a job on the weekend that I work in a dinner theater that has caused all the problems,” Murnan said. “And when I was hired, they were aware that I worked in a dinner theater, and they supported me until all this, and then all of a sudden, they just change their mind.”
Murnan said he plans to take some time to focus on himself now that he’s no longer working at Western Heights. While he initially took a hiatus from the drag stage, he has resumed performing at The Boom on Northwest 39th Street.
“I have a plan of action, but it’s like a game with my life right now, and I don’t like being the piece that’s being played. So I am just waiting,” Murnan said. “I would like for this to all to go away, but I don’t know what anybody’s next moves are, and right now I’m just trying to take care of myself and get through life and move on with my life.”
Murnan also shared an assessment of his now-former school district.
“I’m a strong person. I will get through it. I think I had more relief today seeing that I no longer work for the district, because there’s a lot of controversy other than just me in that district,” Murnan said. “I’m thankful that I’m not a part of all that nonsense any longer.”
(Editor’s note: Western Heights Superintendent Brayden Savage is of no relation to NonDoc editor in chief Tres Savage. This article was updated at 4:20 p.m. to include additional comments from Walters and Murnan.)