Parents and civic leaders clash with former Mayor Kirk Humphreys over his future at John Rex Charter Elementary School 

click to enlarge Kirk Humphreys issued an apology at a press conference with Freedom Oklahoma and later told John Rex Charter Elementary School parents he has no plans to step down from its board of directors. (Photo Laura Eastes)
  • Photo Laura Eastes
  • Kirk Humphreys issued an apology at a press conference with Freedom Oklahoma and later told John Rex Charter Elementary School parents he has no plans to step down from its board of directors.

On Dec. 18, 2017, at the Freedom Oklahoma headquarters on N. Classen Boulevard, former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys offered an apology for the anti-homosexual remarks he made on KFOR’s Flashpoint program eight days earlier. The comments, which compared homosexuality to pedophilia, created their own flashpoint in the progressive and LGBTQ communities.

With his prepared statement, Humphreys, who resigned from the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents days earlier, hoped to put the incident behind him and retain his chair position at John Rex Charter Elementary School, a downtown charter school for which he raised much of the startup and operating capital.

But shortly after the apology, a closed-door meeting between Humphreys and parents and civic leaders poured salt on a fresh wound.

“It was shocking,” said Carrie Coppernoll Jacobs, a former teacher and current member of both the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board and the board at John Rex. “It was unlike any meeting I’ve ever been in in my adult life.”

The meeting, held in the offices of Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, quickly became contentious as Humphreys stated his refusal to step down from his chairmanship at John Rex and parents took offense at what they viewed as a lack of empathy.

“He was immediately defensive and just very off-putting,” said Maggie Howell-Dowd, whose daughter attends second grade at John Rex. “I would have thought with an opportunity to listen to parents, there would be at least some feigned empathy, but there was none.”

John Beedon, a parent of two children at John Rex, offers a similar account.

“When we sat down in there, I was pretty hot already, I have to admit,” Beedon said. “He proceeded to tell us, in a very stately and mannerly tone, that he is morally right and that we cannot expect him to make decisions outside his chosen moral code. He proceeded to tell us that John Rex doesn’t exist without him. He basically told us that we didn’t matter.”

In the wake of the meeting, parents banded together to form an action group, Parents for the Removal of Kirk Humphreys from the John Rex School Board. A petition has gathered more than 350 signatures, and parent Chris Kavanaugh created a website with fact sheets, quotes from Humphreys’ Flashpoint appearance and statements from civic leaders such as Oklahoma Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson, OKC mayoral candidate David Holt and OKC Public Schools Board Chair Paula Lewis criticizing Humphreys comments.

Bad beginning

On the Dec. 10 episode of Flashpoint, Humphreys was debating public morality among politicians with State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, when the conversation veered into homophobic territory.

“Is homosexuality right or wrong? It’s not relative,” Humphreys said. “There’s a right and wrong. You just said it. So it’s either right or wrong, and if it’s okay, then it’s okay for everybody. And quite frankly, then it’s okay for men to sleep with little boys, if it’s okay.”

Humphreys’ comments quickly made the rounds on social media among John Rex parents.

“I mean, for anyone to compare any group of people to pedophiles is disgusting,” Howell-Dowd said. “I was in shock, and I didn’t immediately put it together that he’s on our board.”

It was not the first time Humphreys found himself at odds with progressive ideals. In the early ’00s, as mayor, Humphreys waged a public battle with the gay advocacy group  Cimarron Alliance Foundation over the civic display of gay pride banners, eventually calling for an ordinance denying permits for any banners advocating a political, religious or social message. The ordinance was declared unconstitutional by a federal court.

In a March 2015 Flashpoint episode, Humphreys claimed that falling standards at OKC and Putnam City schools happened because the  “gene pool keeps moving out.”

“It’s moved to Edmond, it’s now moved to Deer Creek, and you know, they’ll keep running as long as they can buy green fields and gasoline for their car,” Humphreys said.

The meeting

According to Jacobs, both past incidents were discussed during the closed-door meeting between Humphreys and parents, a group that also included Lewis and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) OKC president Garland Pruitt.

In an interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Humphreys said the meeting started out prickly and moved into a shouting phase.

“This meeting was contentious from the beginning,” Humphreys said. “For one thing, I don’t think it was set up to be productive. Paula began by demanding my resignation from the Rex board. Then Maggie Howell-Dowd told me that someone who had my ideology was unacceptable to serve on any public board. Finally, it was contentious and the anger and accusations culminated in Mr. Beedon just repeatedly shouting expletives at me, loud enough that it echoed through the halls outside. People outside could tell that it was not going well.”

Humphreys drew a stark comparison between the meeting and a discussion he held the previous day with members of the LGBTQ and progressive communities. Brokered by former Corporation Commissioner Jim Roth and attended by Stevenson, among others, at Roth’s offices at Phillips Murrah law firm, Humphreys said the meeting was a model of mutual respect.

“By all accounts, it was very productive and cordial,” Humphreys said.

Both sides of the meeting at Freedom Oklahoma agree that the discussion became fiery, but the cause of the commotion is up for debate.

“Paula started it off very calmly, like, ‘Hey, we want to hear from you. What are your plans now? The parents have been very clear that they want you to step down,’” Jacobs said. “And he said, ‘I’m not stepping down.’ His response was basically, ‘This is how I feel, so ... no.’ He was unapologetic, and it was a completely different tone from the press conference; unapologetic and uncompromising. He said, ‘Well, you guys are going to have to think about, if I leave, where all this money is going to come from, because I’m leaving and I’m taking my money with me and I’m taking my friends and I’m taking Inasmuch.’ It was a threat to the kids of this school, and very direct.”

Humphreys said his response was not nearly so threatening.

“I never raised my voice. I never used profanity. Believe me; I was trying to be healing and polite,” Humphreys said. “What I said was if the John Rex board chooses to remove me, and they have the right to do that, I said that they’ll have to consider what they’ll lose if I do that. Money that I give and the money that I’ve raised they’d have to replace.”

In a statement to The Oklahoman published Dec. 28, Inasmuch Foundation president Bob Ross said the foundation’s commitment to John Rex will not change “no matter who is on the board.”

The next John Rex school board meeting is Feb. 15, though Jacobs said there is a possibility of an earlier special meeting to determine Humphreys’ future as chairman.

“I think that there is an opportunity here for the community to say, ‘These are our schools, and they don’t belong to any one person and no one person gets to dictate the values of the school district. No one person gets to say who’s welcome and who’s not.’ These are our schools and our kids, and everyone’s welcome. This is a watershed for Oklahoma City.”

Print headline: Battlefront; Parents and civic leaders clash with former Mayor Kirk Humphreys over his future at John Rex Charter Elementary School.

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