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Southlake: Bonus Episode
Books and Backlash
ANTONIA HYLTON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Just a warning, this episode contains descriptions of anti-LGBTQ harassment and a discussion of suicide. If you or a loved one are struggling, you can find resources in the episode description. Thanks for listening.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: I think we’re all just really scared —
UNKNOWN FEMALE: Terrified.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: I think you are terrified, and I wish I could take that away. I do. I can’t.
HIXENBAUGH, NBC NEWS NATIONAL REPORTER: It’s Friday, October 8, 2021. Less than two months into the new school year at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake. And if you ask some folks, things have been going great. The Dragon football team is undefeated, about to embark on another run at a Texas State championship. And with kids back in class fulltime and no more mask mandates, it feels too many in town like the pandemic might finally be in the rearview mirror.
But on this afternoon, Carroll teachers have big concerns about something else happening in the district.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: So according to Ms. Petty, the information we have right now is that classroom libraries cannot be used until they have been vetted. So —
(CROSSTALK)
HYLTON: They’re at a staff meeting with the school district administrator, explaining why they’re afraid for their jobs. And one of them is secretly recording on a cellphone.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: I just need to understand what my liability and my rights are if somebody disagrees with my decision of how I vetted them.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: And, okay, time out for just a second, too.
HYLTON: Earlier that week, the Carroll School Board had voted to reprimand a fourth-grade teacher after a parent complained about the presence of a book in her classroom called “This Book is Anti-Racist.” The mom said the book, which her daughter brought home, violated their family’s morals and faith. A couple days later, Carroll administrators sent out a district-wide email, instructing every teacher to review all of the books in their classroom libraries, the ones available for kids to read during free time, and to set aside any that present narratives in, quote, “such a way that it may be considered offensive.”
GINA PETTY, CARROLL INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION: I would venture to say that 99.9 percent, maybe even 100 percent, of your books are just fine. We just want to make sure that you know what they are.
HIXENBAUGH: That’s the voice of Gina Petty, Carroll’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. She’s come to this staff work session to explain the new book guidelines and to reassure teachers that everything is going to be okay.
At one point, an assistant principal can be heard telling Petty that some teachers are worried that they could be punished if a parent complains about a book that mentions race or racism.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: I think the concern is some of their historical fiction books, some of their biographies —
UNKNOWN FEMALE: Fictions.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: — and some of the fiction could be a little controversial at times, based on whatever your lens is.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: And whatever experiences the characters are going through.
PETTY: I understand that. And I understand your concern with it. But you also have to understand, we are in the middle of a political mess. And you are in the middle of a political mess. And so — you’re going to do what you do best and that’s to teach kids.
HYLTON: The political mess Petty is referring to started a year earlier, back in 2020, when conservatives in town revolted against the district’s proposal to stamp-out racists and anti-LGBTQ bullying. The Cultural Competence Action Plan, or CCAP. That’s the 34-page document that called for new diversity and inclusion programs, and the conservatives disparaged as a liberal roadmap to indoctrinate kids.
Afterward, residents elected new school board members who’d promise to rid the district of any teaching they branded as Critical Race Theory, or CRT for short. Now the fighting style (INAUDIBLE) across the country was shifting to library books.
HIXENBAUGH: During the meeting, a Carroll teacher floats the possibility that even books on certain Civil Rights icons might land them in hot water.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: I just — I mean, even (INAUDIBLE) question Rosa Parks.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: Right.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: No (INAUDIBLE) is scared.
PETTY: You are professionals. We hired you as professionals. We trust you with our children. So, if you think the book is okay, then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we will fight it together. We will.
HIXENBAUGH: But the teachers aren’t buying it. They keep bringing up the school board’s vote that week to punish one of their colleagues, over the dispute that began with a parent’s complaint about a book on antiracism. In that case, Carroll administrators, the teachers’ actual supervisors, had looked into it and decided against punishing the teacher. But the newly elected school board members voted to reprimand her anyway, siding with the conservative mom who had contributed to their campaigns.
After about a half hour, Petty steps away and calls a deputy superintendent to ask for more clarity on what teachers should be doing. A few minutes later, Petty returns with some answers. And a suggestion that would shock educators across the country.
PETTY: (INAUDIBLE) looking at it from that perspective —
HYLTON: The audio here is a little muffled. The teachers are crowded around Petty in a hallway. You’ll hear her mention 3979, in reference to House Bill 3979, a new Texas law that says teachers must provide balanced perspectives on hot-button issues, like racism and politics.
PETTY: (INAUDIBLE) through, just try to remember the concepts of 3979 and make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has opposing — that has other —
(CROSSTALK)
UNKNOWN WOMAN: How do you oppose the Holocaust?
UNKNOWN WOMAN: What?
(CROSSTALK)
HYLTON: You heard that correctly. Petty told teachers if you have a book on the Holocaust, make sure you have one that shows opposing perspectives.
(CROSSTALK)
PETTY: Believe me, that’s come up.
HYLTON: The teachers are incredulous. One of them mentions the Lois Lowry book “Number the Stars”, a novel about the Holocaust that has been taught at schools for decades now.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So “Number the Stars”, which is –
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, no, no. (inaudible).
(CROSSTALK)
That’s exactly it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So,all of our historical fiction we have to go?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because there is no –
(CROSSTALK)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just leave your library – just leave your library –
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: The audio from that meeting popped up on my phone later that same evening last October in a confidential message from a source. I was warming up frozen pizzas for my kids as I listened and was so surprised by what I was hearing I ended up burning the pepperoni.
Antonia and I at this point had spent a year covering the political fight over the ways schools address race, racism, and history. Trying to understand where this movement was heading, now here was a senior school administrator who in an attempt tocomply with a new state law was directing teachers to provide opposing perspectives on the Holocaust.
And so, a few days later –
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LESTER HOLT, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS HOST: Our NBC News exclusive, the new report on a series in a Texas school district at the center of a –
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: We published the audio and broadcasted an excerpt on NBC NIGHTLY NEWS.
HYLTON: NBC News obtained exclusive secretly recorded audio of a school training. The Director of Curriculum, Gina Peddy, offers an example for teachers. Balance books about the Holocaust with an opposing view.
Our story went international. Within hours the words Holocaust and Southlake became the number one and number three trending topics on Twitter, and to some became a symbol of the overreach of the conservative movement against critical race theory. The story got picked up by every major news outlet and drew condemnation from across the globe.
The Auschwitz Memorial responded by posting tips for teaching about the Holocaust on social media and tagging Carroll ISD. Jewish authors and Holocaust survivors went on cable news and wrote editorials in response.
HIXENBAUGH: Back in Southlake some folks were annoyed that their school system was in the news again. Peddy didn’t respond to interview requests, but plenty of people came forward to defend her, arguing that she had misspoken while under pressure and blaming the school board for putting her in an impossible situation. Board members also didn’t respond to interview requests, but Carroll Superintendent Lane Ledbetter, Peddy’s boss, issued a statement apologizing of the comments and acknowledging that, quote, “There are not two sides of the Holocaust.”
Southlake Mayor John Huffman later issued a statement of his own, accusing me and Antonia of being on a mission to tear the community down by reporting on what’s happening there.
HYLTON: It was clear that a lot of people in Southlake were eager to get out of the national spotlight and move beyond the bitter division in town, but that wasn’t entirely in their control.
HIXENBAUGH: Because the fight over library books, that was just heating up. And despite losing seats on the school board in a landslide, parents of color and progressives in Southlake hadn’t given up on their fight to address racism at Carroll, and now they were about to find a powerful new ally, one with real potential to force change in Southlake.
HYLTON: From NBC News, I’m Antonia Hylton.
HIXENBAUGH: I’m Mike Hixenbaugh.
HYLTON: And this is a special bonus episode of “Southlake”.It’s been about five months since our last episode, and as you can probably tell a lot’s gone down in Southlake since then. In a special election in November not long after the whole Holocaust controversy, conservatives aligned with Southlake Families Pac won another seat on the Carroll school board, handing them the majority. As a reminder, this is the faction that opposed the diversity plan, arguing that the district could handle complaints about racism and bullying using tools it already had.
So, no surprise one of the new board’s first actions was to settle the lawsuit with Kristin Garcia, the mom who had sued to stop the CCAP back in 2020. That settlement officially killed the plan and repaid Garcia’s six-figure legal fees.
HIXENBAUGH: Meanwhile, the battle over which books should be allowed in schools was intensifying, and not just in Southlake.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Look at our libraries. Propaganda works on impressionable minds.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: Parents including that mom in Katy, Texas were packing school board meetings to read and comment on passages from library books meant for teenagers, including this graphic novel featuring a transgender trial.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is “The Breakaways” by Cathy Johnson. They’re kissing, they’re looking at each other, they’re touching each other hands. Fifth graders. “You’re my best friend. Can I tell you something?” “Yes.” “I think I’m a boy. I feel better. I’m glad you trust me.” So, then they end up kissing. This is in seven of our junior high schools.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: In some instances, parents said these books were leading kids to improperly question their sexuality and gender identity.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How does this happen? Why are we sexualizing our precious children?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Texas Governor Greg Abbott took it further. In a letter to the Texas Education Agency, he called for criminal investigations into any school official who stocked library shelves with books that include descriptions of sex, which he described as pornography.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do – how do you defend yourself against a charge of pornography or something like that?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: And, of course, all of this was trickling down to educators in Southlake.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That is reputation destroying. You know, we kind of live in a society where, you know, people make a decision about who and what you are before you can defend yourself.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: In January Mike and I returned to Southlake and met with someone who had witnessed some of the fighting going on behind the scenes at Carroll. We met at a hotel about a mile from the high school.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
SARAH CHASE, CARROLL SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARIAN: My name is Sarah Chase, and I have been the librarian at Carroll Senior High School for the last 19.5 years.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Actually, Sarah was the librarian at Carroll Senior High. She had retired a month earlier and was still getting used to describing her career in the past tense. She hadn’t planned to walk away in the middle of a school year.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: I guess probably around October I decided that’s it. I don’t need to do this anymore.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Sarah said she loved her job. She loved the feeling of handing a book to a kid and watching them fall in love with it. That was especially true for her students of color and LGBTQ kids who weren’t always used to seeing themselves reflected in the books they were assigned to read for class.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: Kids need to see themselves in books. The world is incredibly diverse. The kids need to see that, and I think it’sreally helpful when they can read a book and put themselves in the place of that main character and experience what somebody else is experiencing. Walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes kind of thing virtually through a book. It’svery important.
HYLTON: Did you feel supported in that mission for most of your time there?
CHASE: Absolutely. I used to.
(LAUGHTER)
This last, you know, semester or whatever I felt quite a bit differently about it. I started second guessing a lot of the things I used to do. I felt if a parent complained or something to anybody above campus that we might not be supported. It was a very scary feeling. When you read newspaper stories and online stories about districts where parents have taken books directly to the police and asked for criminal charges to be brought against the school and/or the librarian using words like obscenity and pornography, how scary is that?
Sarah was the kind of librarian who would proudly put up a display of controversial titles for Ban Books Week, but with all the political fighting in town Sarah started to waver on some of the values she’d spent decades upholding.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: I always thought that I would fight for a book. That if something were challenged that I would get in there and I would fight and, you know, and support that book.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: In September, as kids were returning to school, Sarah faced a decision. One of the moms who’d been a big supporter of stuff like Family’s Back, wrote and e-mail to a senior district administrator complaining about a library book called, “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out.”
The parent wrote, quote, “There is extreme sexual content in that book that isn’t even appropriate for me to put in an e-mail. Then she forwardedit Hannah Smith and Cam Brian, the newly elected conservative school board members. Before long, the e-mail reached Sarah.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: One of my favorites tenants of librarianship is you get to decide what your child gets to read. You don’t get to decide what my child gets to read.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: That idea is actually enshrined in Carroll ISD policy. The rule says, quote, “A parent’s ability to exercise control over reading, listening or a viewing matter extends only to his or her own child.”
Accordingly, the mom opposed to “Beyond Magenta,” should have been required to fill out a form, officially challenging the book. A committee should have been formed to review it and decide whether to keep it on shelves. But in this case, none of that happened.
After a Carroll District administrator made it clear that there was strong opposition to the book, Sarah agreed to pull it off the shelf.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: And I don’t want to say I felt pressured to make that decision, but I could tell which way the wind was blowing. Let’s put it that way. And I comforted myself with the fact that there are plenty of other books that could take the place of that book. That I wasn’t depriving transgender students of a book where they could see themselves in. So, but yes, I still wish I’dkind of fought for that. It’s kind of a disappointment to me.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: The pressure wasn’t just local. In October, Representative Matt Krause, the Republican Chairman of an investigative committee in the Texas House put together a list 850 books on racism, sex and LGBTQ issues that might appear in school libraries. He implied that making those books available to students might violate the same anti-CRT law that Petty cited before making her Holocaust comment.
Krause sent the list to several school districts, including Carroll, and told them to identify how many copies of each book they held, exactly where they were located and how much they’d spent to acquire them.
The list included titles like, “I am Jazz,” a children’s picture book about a transgender child. “The Confessions of Matt Turner,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the leader of the famous slave revolt. And “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehasi Coates, a book written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about being black in America.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: We did get that list from Representative Krause and we, as librarians in the district, we split the list up and there’s 11 of us, we split the list into 11 equal parts, and we started searching our catalog to determine if we had any of those books on the shelves. We spent hours and hours and hours doing that.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Nobody ever told librarians they needed to remove the books on Krause’s list, but Sarah felt like the task of just listing them out made the point clear.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: It sends the message that you better be really careful about what’s on the shelf. It sent the message that we’re watching you. And it’s a very chilling effect.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Fed up, Sarah retired on December 17, months earlier than planned. It’s not the way she imagined her career would end.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: We love putting books in the hands of kids. We love when they come back and say, I finished this. What’s next? And for people to just criticize us for what we do, but to denigrate us and call us names and vilify us, that is so sad to me.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Be even more than that, Sarah said she worried about this signal this movement might be sending to kids, especially for children of color and LGBTQ students.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHASE: I think it sends the message that we don’t value their existence, if they can’t even open up a book and see themselves represented in the pages of a book because some adult think it’s unacceptable in some way, we’re invalidating their existence and that’s just not right.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: Of course, books aren’t the only reason LGBTQ students might feel invalidated at school. Last fall, around the same time Sarah was thinking about retiring early a queer Carroll student was also leaving the district, but for very different reasons.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: So how long have you been doing this drive?
CHRISTINA EDMONDSON, MOTHER OF CARROLL ISD STUDENT: Christian started in November. He gets dropped off and picked up because, obviously, there’s no bus for the private school.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: We’re in the car with Southlake mom Christina Edmondson, as she heads to pick up her 12-year-old son Christian from his new school, a town over in Grapevine.
She’s been making this 15-minute drive since November. After she made the decision to pull Christian out of Carroll ISD’s Durham Intermediate School.
EDMONDSON: He’s in a private school because the environment at Durham was — it was really physicallyunsafe, and the administration had no intention of changing it to make it better for Christian. There he is. Hello, kiddo.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello.
EDMONDSON: Do you want me to take this bag?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, please.
CHRISTINA: We will put it back here.
HIXENBAUGH: Hey, Christian. I’m Mike. We talked on the phone.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, I was actually really surprised because I forgot that you guys were going to come in for sec. I just forgot a little bit and then it sort of startled me whenever I heard a grown man’s voice coming from the back of the car.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: Christian is a funny kid. Seemingly wisebeyond his years. His dad once told him he was 12 going on 40 and you can tell from his musing as we roll down the highway he’sbeen through some stuff.
A quick heads up, over the next few minutes we’re going to be talking about some traumatic events and thoughts of suicide.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have always thought that it was my fault that all that stuff happened. And now looking back at it, I’ve seen that it’s just people who need to work on improving themselves.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Christian is referring to his experiences last year as a student at Durham Intermediate School, which is part of the Carroll System. After kids found out that he identified as bisexual and later pansexual he said some boys started taunting him relentlessly. Calling him slurs in the hallway and harassing him at recess.
At first Christina didn’t know what was going on, but she could tell something was wrong.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
EDMONDSON: He would come home from school very withdrawn and very just he was sad but almost just defeated.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: One day she noticed welts on his legs. When she pressed him Christian told her some boys had been hitting him with stretch bands and he explained how those same kids had been mocking him for his sexuality.
Christina reported the bullying to administrators several times after that but all it ever led to, as far as she knows, was an assistant principal giving the students a talking to. The district didn’t open a bullying investigation and Christina says he doesn’t believe enough was done to teach the students why it’s wrong to tease a classmate for being queer.
A district spokesperson didn’t respond to a message requesting comment. In the past the district has told us that student privacy laws prevent them from talking about individual cases.
HIXENBAUGH: It all came to a head in September after Christian and the other students returned from summer break at the start of sixth grade.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
EDMONDSON: He said that he was waiting to get on the bus to come home and a kid confronted him and said, oh, I didn’t that emos could be gay. Kids were making up rumors that he had kidnapped a male student that didn’t return and was keeping him in his basement.
They were asking him if — if you think you’re a pansexual, what other kitchen utensils are you attracted to. And they were asking him oh, do you like them big.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: The constant harassment wore on him and Christian started having some dark thoughts.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNKNOWN: I thought that if those people didn’t like me then why would the rest of the world like me? So, then I told one of my friends that I didn’t want to live anymore and then —
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: Some of Christian’s classmates overheard. He said one of them responded by grabbing a long piece of volleyball net at recess and carrying it to a goal post on the football practice field.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNKNOWN: And then they got a volleyball rope and they — the kid that I told originally actually climbed up the football goal post and tied it and they made a noose and were going to actually help me hang myself.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Christina was outraged and terrified when she learned what happened from Christian. She got him into a mental health treatment program right away and reported the incident in an email to the school’s principal, Mike Wyrick.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNKNOWN: (INAUDIBLE).
EDMONDSON: No, I have a meeting with Mr. Wyrick at 2:00.
UNKNOWN: OK.
EDMONDSON: Thank you.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Five days later on September 7th she met with Wyrick and secretly recorded their conversation. In the recording he explains that he and his staff hadn’t yet opened an investigation into Christian’s allegations. In part because they knew Christian was receiving psychiatric care and wouldn’t be returning to school right away.
Wyrick said he hadn’t interviewed any of the students who’d been there, hadn’t reviewed camera footage of the playground.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
MIKE WYRICK, PRINCIPAL, DURHAMINTERMEDIAT SCHOOL: You know it wasn’t rushed because he’s in right now to provide that hassle safety mechanism.
EDMONDSON: Right. But he could have come today and there wouldn’t have been any measures in place.
WYRICK: No, there — there was not. And so, we haven’t —
EDMONDSON: Right, because it wasn’t addressed.
WYRICK: — I — I — and I — no. So, I’m not trying to make an excuse to why we haven’t worked on your kid right now but priority one kind of moved it stuff around too.
EDMONDSON: Oh no, I get that.
WYRICK: Do you understand what I’m saying?
EDMONDSON: But it’s also not just my kid because you have — if — if what my kid is saying is true than in your school you have a group of kids that think it’s OK to tell someone to kill themselves and bring them a rope.
WYRICK: Right.
EDMONDSON: So, it’s not just my kid that it affects. Like if you found out like yes, they did do this, then if you deal with those kids then maybe you were saving other kids from going through what he went through.
WYRICK: No, you’re exactly right.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Wyrickdidn’t respond to our request for comment but at the end of the meeting he assured Christina that he and his staff would look into what happened.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
WYRICK: I mean we’ll do a normal investigation like we do. We have kids give statements, we have kids write statements and then we will take it from there.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: But six months later she still doesn’t know what, if anything, came of the investigation. In response to a grievance, she filed against the district a senior Carroll administrator acknowledged in writing that the school should have opened an investigation into Christian’s bullying allegations back when he first reported them in the spring of 2021.
The letter didn’tprovide any information about the investigation into the alleged noose incident, including what it revealed or whether any actions were taken in response. The district denied Christina’s request to fire Wyrick, noting that he and other principals had since been retrained in how to investigate student allegations.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
EDMONDSON: It is overwhelming and infuriating and terrifying. You — you feel like you’re sending your child somewhere safe. They have them more hours of the day than you do. And you expect them to take care of your children.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: Christina is appealing the district’s decision. In the meantime, Christian says he’s enjoying his new school. He feels free to be himself there. He told us he wanted to share his story because he thought it might help other kids like him.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNKNOWN: If there is somebody out there, which there most likely is going through the same thing that I’ve gone through that I just want them to know there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to keep walking.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: The story Christian and Christina were telling us about kids bullying him over his sexuality,it’s a lot like the stories that dozens of parents and former Carroll students shared in 2018 and 2019, back when the district was putting together the C-Cap, stories like these are what prompted the district to form the District Diversity Council.
It’s why some parents have been calling for changes at Carroll, not just to hold kids accountable but to teach them how to respect their classmates, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Any hope of the district voluntarily implementing those types of changes died after Southlake Families PAC backed candidates won two seats on the School Board last spring and a third in November all in landslide elections.
HYLTON: But then on a Friday in November, three letters arrived at Carroll’s administrative offices. It turns out the U.S. Department of Education had also gotten some complaints about discrimination against students in Southlake.
And now the federal government was opening a civil rights investigation into the Carroll Independent School District.
When the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights or OCR is investigating a school district, the office’s policy is to not discuss the investigation other than to confirm that it exists. So, there’s a lot we don’t know about what brought the agency to Southlake. But here’s what we do know.
HIXENBAUGH: Investigators are looking into three separate complaints that were filed in April of 2021 on behalf of three Carroll students who reported being discriminated against based on their race, gender, and national origin.
We can’t tell you which students complained or specifically what they alleged, though we can say Christian’s case was not one of them.
HYLTON: The investigation could take months or even years. And at the end of it if investigators conclude that student’s rights were violated, the agency could require the district to make policy changes, including potentially the implementation of new diversity equity and inclusion programs for students or staff.
Essentially the types of things that the voters of Southlake had just rejected twice.
HIXENBAUGH: Unsurprisingly, news of the federal investigation drew some passionate responses in Southlake. In a video address on Facebook Ledbetter, Carroll’s superintendent assured the community that he and his administration had already retrained staff to improve the district’s handling of harassment allegations.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
DR. LANE LEDBETTER, CARROLLINDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, SUPERINTENDENT: And we feel like what we’ve put in place will help to address many of the concerns that I heard in many of the conversations I had last spring.
So, I just want to be clear, if OCR determines that there are steps that we can take beyond what we have implemented, then we will absolutely comply. You know, my priorities are kids, and we’re going to keep them safe. And if there’s things that we can do to help keep our kids safe, then we will certainly do that.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: But a lot of diversity plan supporters still felt like the district was ignoring the root of the problem. We caught up with Jennifer Huff, a white mom who’dlobbied for the CCAP outside a school board meeting in January.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: What does the Department of Education investigation represent?
UNKNOWN: That’s our last hope. That is like the last great hope. Because our thought is the only way we’re going to get any change in here is if the Department of Education comes in and does something. That our kids are going to keep suffering unless they come in and say you all have to do something to protect these kids.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Of course, CCAP opponents saw things very different. Southlake Families PAC sent out a message to supporters suggesting that the investigation was somehow being steered by the Department of Justice.
A completely separate federal agency as part of a liberal plot to retaliate against conservative parents who voted to kill the diversity plan. And Congresswoman Beth Van Duyne, a Republican whose district includes Southlake responded by writing a letter to the U.S. secretary of education accusing the Biden administration of quote, “Weaponizing federal resources to intimidate parents who disagree with the policies of this administration.”
Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn co-signed the letter.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Hey, Scott, it’sMike Hixenbaugh, how are you doing?
W. SCOTT LEWIS, MANAGING PARTNER, TNG CONSULTING: Good, how are you?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: To understand what’sactually happening and what it might mean for Carroll I called up W. Scott Lewis, a consultant for a Pennsylvania-based firm that advises school districts facing civil rights complaints.
He’s not involved in the Carroll case, and he said he didn’t want to criticize the district. But he scoffed at the idea that the Department of Education was doing this to retaliate against conservative parents for how they voted.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LEWIS: If you’re a school board or a school district or somebody who’s in elected office, and somebody has alleged that one of your constituents is doing this behavior, and your answer is they shouldn’t be looking into this at all because it’s political in nature, well that’s a — that’s a strange answer as opposed to look into it, we don’t think we’re doing anything wrong.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: That said, if the Department of Education does find problems Lewis said the investigation will likely go beyond the circumstances of the three complaints to look at what types of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs are in place for students and staff. Which means the school district’s decision to scrap the CCAP could turn out to be a factor.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LEWIS: If you suddenly decide we’re not going to do any training at all on different races, and cultures, or ethnicities, or understanding sexual orientation, or gender identity and then that lack of education leads to a lack of understanding, an appreciation, or tolerance, and that then leads to harassment or bullying the OCR’s going to get involved.
There’s going to be more of a broad-based look. So,we’re going to be looking at not just the cases that came in but all right, is there a systemic issue here? Is there a policy problem here?
What are you doing as I said as a district or as a campus to train your staff and teachers about issues surrounding discrimination and bullying and things like that? What am I doing in terms of training with my students about other races, and religions, and genders, plus orientation and things like that?
Because if there’s no education happening, obviously, that could be one of the contributing factors to the bullying.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: Back in Christina Edmondson’s kitchen, we asked her how she reacted when she learned that the Department of Education had opened a civil rights investigation into the same type of allegations that Christian had made.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
EDMONDSON: I was thrilled because I know that Christian’s not the only one. And you know, I would also, I mean, I would love for my complaint to be investigated as well.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: In fact, one of the investigators working on the Department of Education’s probe has already been in touch with Christina about the possibility of looking into her complaints against the school district.
HIXENBAUGH: And she’s not the only one. We’ve spoken to two more families in Southlake who say that the agency contacted them to learn about discrimination complaints they’d filed against Carroll. Including concerns about the treatment of children with disabilities and other LGBTQ students like Christian.
HYLTON: Meanwhile students and advocates are keeping the pressure on. In February the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund announced that it too had filed a complaint with the Department of Education on behalf of additional Carroll students who say they’ve been bullied based on their race, gender, or sexuality.
A lawyer for the group told us that the goal of the filing was to make sure that the department of education realizes that the problems at Carroll were systemic. And required systemic changes. One of the kids referenced in the NAACP complaint was Christian, Christina’s son.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
EDMONDSON: I don’t want what happened Christian to happen to any other child. I’m hoping that by the Department of Education investigating it that it will actually kind of light of fire and make Carroll change.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HIXENBAUGH: As for Christian, he says he holds no ill will toward the kids who he said tormented him or any administrators for that matter. He put it this way.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHRISTIAN EDMONDSON, CHRISTINA’S SON: Resentment is like drinking poison and wishing the other person to die.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: He just hopes that the district takes stories like his seriously and uses them as an opportunity to improve the treatment of all students even if that means making unpopular decisions.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHRISTIAN EDMONDSON: What you deny or ignore you delay; what you accept and face you conquer. And I feel like they’re not accepting and facing it. They’re just ignoring it and denying it. And they aren’tactually taking responsibility for what they need to actually work on. They’re just doing what the general public wants instead of what’s right.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
HYLTON: If you or someone in your life is in distress you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The number is 800-273-8255. And please know you’re not alone.
HIXENBAUGH: To everyone who’s followed along with this series, thank you. This story and the growing political pressure on educators across the country isn’t going away anytime soon. Tell us about what’s happening in your community. Send us an email at southlake@nbcuni.com.
HYLTON: “Southlake” was written, reported, and hosted by me, Antonia Hylton.
HIXENBAUGH: And by me, Mike Hixenbaugh. The series is produced by Frannie Kelley. Our story editors are Julie Shapiro and Michelle Garcia. Additional production help from Eva Ruth Moravec and Bob Mallory. Mix and technical direction by Bryson Barnes. Original music by Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Reid Cherlin is our executive producer. Madeleine Haeringeris our head of editorial.
© 2022 NBC UNIVERSAL

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