Drag queen controversy puts Western Heights Public Schools in national spotlight

Dispute drew large crowd to Monday night school board meeting

By: - September 12, 2023 5:30 am

People attend a Western Heights school board meeting Monday night. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A small metro-area school district’s decision to hire a principal who performs as a drag queen has caused division in the community and garnered national attention.

The controversy over Western Heights Public Schools’ recent hiring of Shane Murnan, who performs under the drag name “Shantel Mandalay,” drew a large crowd to the district’s Monday night school board meeting.

Multiple community members, parents and colleagues of Murnan spoke in support of the principal during the public comment portion of the meeting. Several supporters wore shirts that read “#StandWithMurnan.”

But a few local residents questioned the hire.

Murnan was hired in June to lead John Glenn Elementary in the southwest Oklahoma City school district. He came from Oklahoma City Public Schools, where he had worked since 2015. 

Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful. The board’s meeting agenda made no mention of Murnan, and it took no action on his employment.

John Glenn Elementary teacher Kily Keeling said Murnan has been a positive presence in her school.

“Teachers come to work smiling,” Keeling said in public comment. “Students are happy. They are loved. They are cared for. They are supported, but most importantly because of his consistency, his visibility and his willingness to allow mistakes for the sake of growth, we are now thriving and our students are learning.”

Western Heights garnered national attention recently when the conservative social media account Libs of TikTok made a post identifying the principal as a drag queen.

State Superintendent Ryan Walters then called for Murnan to be fired because of his participation in drag performances, in which the principal wears makeup and a feminine outfit. 

Walters and right-wing media also scrutinized a 2001 charge of child pornography possession against Murnan, who was a fifth-grade teacher in Stillwater at the time. A judge dismissed the case, and the charge was expunged from his record.

Murnan said in an interview with NonDoc published Monday that the dismissed charges were related to a “bias against gay educators.”

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

Street preacher Rich Penkoski speaks into a megaphone outside Council Grove Elementary before a Western Heights Board of Education meeting Monday in Oklahoma City. The group protested the district hiring a principal who performs in drag. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

A spokesperson for Walters didn’t respond to questions about what legal steps the state superintendent would take.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education, which Walters leads, renewed Murnan’s license as an elementary educator in April, said Brayden Savage, superintendent of Western Heights. That process would have involved a felony background check.

Murnan has an “outstanding reputation” and came “highly recommended” by previous colleagues, Savage said in an Aug. 30 statement.

John Glenn parent Kaylee Alexander, though, still questioned whether he was the right hire, given the accusations he faced. Now, her children’s school has protestors standing outside, neighbors screaming obscenities and extra police patrolling the school grounds.

“In an age of school shootings and political unrest, I no longer feel comfortable sending my children to class and decided to keep them home while I exhaust every avenue to get them out of this school,” Alexander told the board.

Western Heights Board President Briana Flatley said the board and district administrators were aware of Murnan’s 2001 charge and his drag performances before choosing to hire him.

She said she was confident Murnan would do a capable job and not pose a threat.

“I have children in my life, my godchildren, that are in this district who are at the elementary level,” Flatley said. “If he’s not somebody I would put in front of them, that’s saying something.”

Western Heights Board of Education President Briana Flatley leads a meeting Monday at Council Grove Elementary in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

Flatley said she’s received death threats and an “overwhelming” number of emails since LibsofTikTok posted about Murnan.

Messages from people who live or work in Western Heights have been mostly supportive, she said, while most of the criticism has come from elsewhere.

“It’s all been outside voices,” Flatley said. “I’ve gotten some (emails) from Oregon. I’ve gotten some from Montana. From Texas, Georgia, Indiana.”

A small group of “street preachers” drove to Western Heights from across Oklahoma to protest with signs condemning homosexuality. They said they held the same signs in front of Murnan’s school on Friday.

“Homosexuals who dress in drag, who were caught with child pornography … they should not be anywhere near children,” said Rich Penkoski, one of the preachers.

Several LGBTQ+ advocates and allies also attended Monday’s meeting.

The LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Freedom Oklahoma encouraged its supporters to come to show up in solidarity with Murnan and all drag performers who work in public education.

“There is community ready to fight back against the continued attacks on our very existence,” said Nicole McAfee, the group’s executive director.


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Nuria Martinez-Keel
Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.