Southlake: episode 5
The Debate Channel
Antonia Hylton: Just a warning. This episode contains some explicit language that’s important to the story of what happened in Southlake. We don’t want you to be caught off guard. Thanks for listening.
Mike Hixenbaugh: One afternoon this March, Southlake resident Jennifer Huff found what looked like a new local newspaper stuffed inside her mailbox. She told me about it over the phone.
Jennifer Hough: I was just, like, “Seriously, this is where we’re at? And–“
Hixenbaugh: The words “Southlake Families News Volume One” were plastered across the top of the newspaper. And underneath it, in huge boldface type, the lead headline screamed a question. Is Carroll ISD in crisis? Jennifer, a white mother of two Dragon students, scanned the page until her eyes landed on the fine print at the bottom.
Hough: “Political advertisement paid for by Southlake Families PAC.”
Hixenbaugh: Southlake Families PAC. The new conservative political action committee in town had raised nearly $200,000 in its fight to stop the diversity plan, mostly from local donors. And now it had spent a chunk of that money creating this eight-page political mailer.
Hough: It’s like they were trying to make it seem like it was a legit news organization that put this out and not a political action committee.
Hixenbaugh: Every household in Southlake got at least one copy. Some got two. The paper was filled with headlines and articles about the school district’s Cultural Competence Action Plan. Describing the CCAP as an attempt to, quote, “indoctrinate children according to extremely liberal beliefs.”
And characterizing the plan’s cost, which averages out to about $280,000 per year over five years, as, quote, “radically irresponsible.” One headline warned that the plan would discriminate against Christian student clubs by forcing them to comply with diversity audits.
Hough: And underneath that, you know, you start going to the criminal investigation where they’ve accused board members. And it is trying to explain what CCAP is. And I guess there is–
Hixenbaugh: Jennifer believed this political mailer disguised as a newspaper was probably aimed at people like her. White, Christian Southlake moms who want to protect their kids. But her views on race and politics no longer aligned with many of her neighbors, a shift that really took off in 2016 after her daughter came home talking about kids in her fifth-grade class chanting, “Build the wall.”
Then after the viral n-word video in 2018, and after hearing accounts of Black and gay students who said they’d been bullied at school, Jennifer got even more involved. Even helping start a new local nonprofit, Dignity for All Texas Students, to support the diversity plan. Jennifer was having an emotional reaction to the Southlake Families PAC newspaper. But probably not the one the group was going for.
Hough: And then I was starting to read it and see the things in it that weren’t true. And, you know, the fear mongering that was in it.
Hixenbaugh: On page two, there’s a headline claiming that plans for a diversity and inclusion week at Carroll would amount to a school-sponsored celebration of Black Lives Matter. And on page three, near an article about the dangers of tracking and disciplining students for microaggressions, there’s what looks like a stock photo of a white child in handcuffs under the headline, “Student Criminalization.”
Hough: I was thinking this is propaganda. Making us trying to get afraid that something’s gonna happen to this poor innocent white boy or girl.
Hixenbaugh: But the goal of the mailer wasn’t simply to warn parents about what might happen to white kids under the diversity plan. It also offered ways to fight back. Most importantly, it said, pay attention to local elections. And vote.
Hough: And I will have to say that is one thing that this group is very good at, is organizing and getting people to do stuff.
Hylton: In Southlake this past spring, two school board seats were coming open in May. Along with a pair of city council seats and an open race to replace Mayor Laura Hill, who’d served the maximum two terms. Now political activists on both sides of the fight were getting organized. And they were making the elections all about the school diversity plan.
Hixenbaugh: Residents began to see the election itself as something much bigger. The results would be a statement about what Southlake is. What it stands for. And, the way some saw it, a statement about whose ideas are welcome here. From NBC News, I’m Mike Hixenbaugh.
Hylton: I’m Antonia Hylton.
Hixenbaugh: And this is Southlake.
Hylton: Chapter Five. The Debate Channel. After successfully winning a restraining order to stop Carroll’s diversity plan, and after helping get two school board members indicted on criminal charges, the leaders of Southlake Families PAC shifted to the next phase of the fight: winning seats on the school board and stopping the plan or anything like it from ever passing.
Hixenbaugh: Only two of the seven seats were coming open. And one of those had been held by Matt Bryant, one of the two board members already against the CCAP. So even if the PAC’s candidates won both races, they wouldn’t gain majority control of the board. But with everyone initial town looking at the election as a referendum on the diversity plan, in a way, the CCAP itself was on the ballot.
Hylton: These local elections are officially nonpartisan. There’s no party primary and, historically, candidates for school board and city council haven’t really connected their campaigns with national politics. This year, Southlake Families PAC was taking a different approach.
Hixenbaugh: Nobody at the PAC would talk to us. But in an interview in June with the National Review, Southlake Families organizer Leigh Wambsganss laid out what the game plan had been. She said the PAC interviewed six perspective candidates for the two open school board seats. They also interviewed potential city council candidates.
Wambsganss said the PAC asked every candidate the same set of questions. And got all of them to promise that if the PAC didn’t choose them, they wouldn’t run. The goal, she told the magazine, was to consolidate all of the conservative votes in town behind a single slate of candidates.
Hylton: What Wambsganss didn’t say in the article was what questions PAC members asked to screen candidates. But we managed to get our hands on audio of one of the interview sessions. It was secretly recorded and given to us by one of the participants. Reminder, under Texas law, you don’t need someone’s permission to record them.
Leigh Wambsganss: Okay, I’ll start. And by the way, (NOISE) everyone gets the same questions.
Hylton: That’s Wambsganss. According to our source she and about 15 other PAC members were seated around a large conference table.
Wambsganss: So, I get the easy question. Who did you vote for in the 2020 presidential election?
Hylton: The source who shared the recording with us feared retaliation. And to protect their identity we’re not naming them or which candidate was being interviewed in the session. So, you won’t be hearing the answers. But the questions themselves paint a picture of the PAC’s priorities.
Wambsganss: What is your position on CCAP and why?
Hixenbaugh: The audio is hard to hear. But the question was, “What is your position on the CCAP and why?”
Wambsganss: Do you support Black Lives Matter?
Hixenbaugh: “Do you support Black Lives Matter?”
Hylton: It goes on like this. “Are you pro-life?” “Would you oppose Planned Parenthood coming to Southlake?” “Do you support the Second Amendment?” “Would you ever vote for a tax increase?” And a question about the city’s holiday tree lighting event.
Male Voice: But the word Christmas is mentioned nowhere on any of the publications. It’s not Christmas tree lighting ceremony. It’s not a Christmas event. Would you support calling it a Christmas tree lighting and a Christmas event?
Hixenbaugh: And also–
Male Voice: Are there any scenarios, either in the past or in the future, or if you knew that two people in a race were a Republican and a Democrat, where you would vote for the Democrat?
Hixenbaugh: But they weren’t just asking about the candidate’s voting history. One PAC member asked point blank if the candidate would commit to never appointing any Democrats to serve on any advisory boards or committees. After about 40 minutes they were done.
Hylton: By late winter, Southlake Families had its slate of five candidates for mayor, city council, and school board. To replace Mayor Hill the PAC announced it was backing John Huffman, the conservation councilman who’d spoken out against racism at that Brews with Dads event, but who’d since come out against the diversity plan. For the two city council seats the PAC was supporting and anesthesiologist and a business owner who’d spoken against the CCAP.
Hixenbaugh: And as for the two all-important school board seats–
Hannah Smith: My name is Hannah Smith and I am running for School Board Trustee Place Five.
Cam Bryan: My name is Cam Bryan and I am running for CISD School Board Place Four.
Hixenbaugh: Hannah Smith and Cam Bryan, two names that would become synonymous in Southlake. Because the pair ran their campaigns in lockstep. Smith is a lawyer and a mother of four. And she’s kind of a big deal. She clerked under Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito and worked for a high-powered law firm based in D.C. Here she is appearing on Fox News in 2014, a day after a legal team she was part of won a landmark Supreme Court case that helped chip away at Obamacare.
Smith: Well, thank you.
Male Voice: Good to–
Smith: It’s a great–
Male Voice: –see you–
Smith: –for Hobby Lobby and it’s a great day for religious freedom.
Male Voice: Thanks for being here.
Hixenbaugh: Smith, who moved to Southlake in 2019, had been an early leader in the fight to stop the CCAP. Even volunteering on the Southlake Families PAC legal advisory committee.
Hylton: Her unofficial running mate, Camera Bryan, also has four kids. He’s a civil engineer who spent years volunteering in town as a youth football and basketball coach. We made repeated efforts to speak with both Smith and Bryan. Bryan never responded, though Smith and Mike did end up trading messages.
Smith: Hi, Mike. This is Hannah Smith from Southlake. I was just returning your message.
Hylton: But in the end she wasn’t willing to record an interview with us. As for the pro-diversity plan side, two candidates signed up to run. Running against Bryan was Linda Warner, a white mother of biracial children who has volunteered on school board committees and with the PTO.
And who’d spoken out against racism after the viral n-word video. Smith’s opponent would be Ed Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico and business consultant. On March 27th, 2021, about a month before the election, all four school board candidates gathered for a forum at banquet hall in town.
Child’s Voice: –wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. (APPLAUSE)
Hixenbaugh: For all the nasty mail and personal attacks going on behind the scenes, in public this campaign was pretty polite. The candidates met only a few times in person. Not for debates but for forums, where the candidates struck a far more neighborly tone than what you’ve heard from parents at school board meetings.
Female Voice: If a member of the audience wants to ask a question, they’ll need to do it on the Zoom chat and we’ll be able to streamline those questions and bring them in. We do receive hundreds of questions, which is a testament to each of you and how engaged the community is right now in determining our next school board members.
Hylton: After introductions–
Bryan: Again, my name is Camera Bryan.
Linda Warner: Hello, I’m Linda Warner.
Ed Hernandez: My name is Ed Hernandez.
Smith: My name is Hannah Smith.
Hylton: The moderators got down to business. Without naming what specifically had been dividing the city and school system, one of them asked–
Female Voice: What is your specific plan of action to unify the district?
Hixenbaugh: Smith got to take the first crack at it.
Smith: That’s a really great question. So, we have been through a very difficult time in our community over the last year and a half to two years. I love Southlake. I don’t think that we are a racist community. I don’t think that we have racist schools.
Hixenbaugh: To illustrate the point she told a story that she said one of her kids had told her recently. Sitting in her sixth-grade classroom her daughter noticed a few classmates teasing a boy next to her.
Smith: He was of Southeast Asian descent. And these boys. Behind him started calling him names. Started teasing him about his different name. And were really ugly about it. And this poor kid started to cry.
Hixenbaugh: Smith said her daughter saw what was happening.
Smith: And so, she spoke up and she said, “You need to stop treating him that way. You know, he can’t choose what his name is. His parents named him that. Please stop doing that to him. You’re making him cry and you’re being a bully.”
Hylton: The lesson Smith said she took away from that story was that students are the ones who had the power to unify Southlake.
Smith: So, I think we need to look at our children and their wonderful examples and love each other. They want our schools and our communities to heal. And I think–
Hylton: The rest of the forum mostly focused on more benign subjects. The nuts and bolts of running a school system.
Smith: I’m definitely committed to increasing fiscal responsibility and balancing our budget. I mean, we have–
Hixenbaugh: But after about an hour, one of the moderators finally asked a direct question about the plan that had torn the community apart and inspired all these candidates to run in the first place.
Female Voice: Linda, what is the one thing that you agree on and the one thing that you disagree with, if at all, on the Cultural Competency Action Plan developed by the District Diversity Committee?
Hixenbaugh: Linda Warner and Ed Hernandez both said they disagree with tracking and punishing kids for microaggressions, an idea that had become toxic in Southlake. But both said they supported other aspects of the CCAP., the ones focused on providing staff and students with diversity training.
Hernandez: And really, really think this is opportunity to take on every incident and make it a teaching moment for our kid, you know–
Hixenbaugh: Smith and Bryan said they saw the CCAP differently.
Smith: The thing I disagree with about the CCAP, well, there’s lots of things. But I will just focus on the fact that I’m an attorney. And my background is in defending the Constitution. And there are many, many parts of the CCAP that are blatantly unconstitutional. That infringe on free speech. That infringe on freedom of conscious. And that infringe on freedom of association. So, I will just leave it there.
Hylton: And while Smith and Bryan both argued that the narrative about racism in Southlake had been vastly exaggerated, they did see one area where Carroll could improve. And it wouldn’t require any special new rules, or a new director of diversity with a six-figure salary to oversee it. Here’s Bryan.
Bryan: Thank you, Karen. I actually (NOISE) do believe that if we train our teachers to be able to enact and enforce the student code of conduct, we can eliminate bullying and discrimination from all of our schools.
Hylton: The student code of conduct. Most school districts have one. It’s the set of rules that says what students can and can’t do and how they can be punished. It’s the document that says you can’t cheat on an exam or bring a knife to school. After the 2018 n-word video Carroll’s was updated to include more explicit protections for students’ bullies based on their race or sexuality.
Hixenbaugh: All four candidates seemed to agree that the code of conduct as it was being implemented at the time wasn’t getting the job done. Too many students of color and LGBTQ students had come forward with stories about school staff brushing aside bullying complaints. But what to do about it? That’s where the candidates differed.
Hylton: The way Smith and Bryan saw it, the school district just needed to do a better job of enforcing the code of conduct. To Warner and Hernandez, on the other hand, it was clear that nothing would change without new diversity and inclusion training programs. A viewpoint conspicuously absent from the debate was that of Carroll students themselves who, even as the adults in town went on bickering, were learning to live with the consequences of a broken system.
Hixenbaugh: In March, the same month of that school board candidate forum, a case was playing out at Southlake Carroll that showed the real-life stakes of the arguments over the CCAP. And about whether school staff have the right training and skills to handle complaints from students of all backgrounds.
Em: I am a queer non-binary student. So, I have faced my fair share of discrimination within the district.
Hylton: We sat down with someone who knows firsthand how it feels to be hurt by peers and misunderstood by administrators. Her family, all wearing masks, joined us at their dining room table while their dog yapped from another room.
Em: I am a junior at Carroll Senior High School. And I use she/they pronouns.
Hixenbaugh: We’re not naming the student because she’s a minor. And her parents are worried about her being harassed by strangers. We’ll be referring to her as Em.
Em: I can’t say my name. (LAUGH)
Hixenbaugh: The student is comfortable with being called both she and they. With Em’s permission we’ll be using she throughout.
Em: And, like, I came out in, like, eighth grade. And, like, that’s kind of I guess when I started hearing, like, side comments.
Hylton: Initially, Em says, most of the comments weren’t aimed directly at her. Just kids using the word gay as a way of saying something was dumb. Or general commentary from classmates about homosexuality being a sin.
Em: But then when I went to high school, I started hearing more things. Just people throwing, like, slurs and stuff around in the hallway. And just, like, using gay as an insult. And, like, kind of little things poking fun at me for being queer. If I would dress, like, more masculine or something people were, like, “Oh, are you a dude.” Or–
Hylton: Things got worse for Em after she joined Carroll’s Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA. The club itself was wonderful, she says. The only problem was all the other students figured out who was in it.
Em: Because people were making fun of the GSA. (CHUCKLE) And, like, I would be in class and people were, like, “Oh, let’s go to the GSA who was can figure out who all, like, the queers are,” this and that. In, like, threatening way.
Hylton: Em says she always made sure the hallway was empty before ducking into the classroom where the GSA met.
Em: Because, like, I didn’t won’t people to, like, I don’t know, do something to me while I’m trying to get to my little club. Yeah, school wasn’t a safe place for me.
Hixenbaugh: In some ways the pandemic was a relief, Em says. In virtual classes at least she was able to focus on her work and not what the kid two rows back was saying about her. That was, until March 5th. She was at home, logged onto her physics class, when suddenly her phone started blowing up with Instagram alerts. Four boys in her grade had created a private chat. They named it, “Debate Channel.” Then one of them added Em to the thread and two of them started blasting her with messages.
Em: Really awful, hateful things.
Hixenbaugh: We’ve seen a copy of the messages, though the boys’ names are blacked out. And Em and her parents declined to identify them. Warning, you’re about to hear an emotional conversation that includes misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ slurs.
Seconds after adding her to the Instagram chat one of the boys wrote, “Who tf has pronouns in their bio? Nobody takes that serious.” That same boy wrote a follow-up message. “You can’t be they. They is plural.” And then, “It’s a mental illness, not a sexuality.” Followed by a rolling on the floor laughing emoji. One of the other boys responded by typing, “Hahaha.”
Hylton: Em never responded. But the boys kept typing. She read through some of the messages with us.
Em: “Dumb c-word. I truly loathe the people who voted by Biden. And the only reason Kamala is Vice President is being her legs were–“
Hixenbaugh: We’re not gonna play the rest of that clip because it’s too vulgar.
Em: I was just so tired. Like, I’m just trying to do my physics class. And they are just sending so much bad energy my way. And just saying the most awful, horrible things. I emailed an administration person to, like, report the incident, like, right away.
Hixenbaugh: That’s when Carroll Senior High School principal Shawn Duhon got involved. The same administrator who told Raven Rolle two years earlier, after she rod hearing a classmate use the n-word, that she was too pretty to let racist comments get under her skin. When students file harassment complaints they tend to land on his desk. A few days later Duhon scheduled a Zoom meeting with Em. She says her parents were not invited.
Em: Hello. Hi.
Hixenbaugh: A friend suggested that Em secretly record the conversation. And, just like Raven Rolle, she shared it with us.
Shawn Duhon: All right, excellent. Well, I got Miss Schott here with me, my Dean of Instruction. Just kinda sit through and talk through some things with you. And she’s aware of–
Hylton: We asked to talk with Duhon. But he declined to comment. And a school district spokeswoman noted that they’re prohibited by law from commenting on student disciplinary matters.
Hixenbaugh: In the recording, Duhon opens by explaining why it took a little while to get back to her. Then he shares his conclusions about what happened based on conversations that he’d already had with a couple of the boys and their parents. You can hear Em nervously fiddling with a hair clip as he talks.
Duhon: In visiting with them, they were inviting people into the debate channel. Talking with one of ’em specifically, he said that he wanted to hear opposing views and opinions. And I said, okay, makes sense. He goes, “I like politics and I wanna debate.” I said okay. Very reasonable, very understanding.
Hixenbaugh: With that, Duhon pivots to an issue that he believes needs to be sorted out. Had Em accepted an invite to join the debate channel?
Duhon: So, my question to you is did you text or call or I guess direct message, like, a girl to have you accept or to accept into the chat?
Hixenbaugh: He doesn’t say it directly but he seems to be trying to figure out whether she consented to be part of the debate. At least that’s how Em took it. For the record, she didn’t have to accept anything to be added to the Instagram chat.
Em: I don’t know these people at all. I’ve never talked to them at all. And so, my phone started blowing up saying I was added to their group chat. I was just there. I didn’t wanna be there. But, yeah. And it wasn’t exactly debate as they were, like, calling me slurs and saying–
Duhon: Yeah, and not only–
Em: –all that stuff–
Duhon: –that one, I want to get to that. And so, hold that point right there. So, what–
Hixenbaugh: Duhon keeps coming back to the question of whether Em had agreed to join the chat. And he’s trying to figure out why Em thinks that messages were targeted at her.
Duhon: But I never saw you part of the debate. And in general, I never saw anything specific that they said to you.
Em: I was the only one who was in the group chat. No one else was added. It was all being directed at me. ‘Cause they didn’t add anyone else. And they just started, like, being mean to me. (CHUCKLE)
Hixenbaugh: But that’s not how the boys see it, Duhon tells her. One of them explained it all to him in an email.
Duhon: He was basically saying that they were directing things more at the party or at a political side or view. Because they were trying to create dialogue. They were trying to create a debate. To both of the young men I did talk about, you know, if you’re trying to create dialogue and learn from a debate, which is good, that it needs to be obviously done professional and in a respectful way. That it needs to be–
Hixenbaugh: And he says he gave the boys a warning about how this kind of behavior might look to a college admissions officer who happened to be a Democrat.
Duhon: And so, I told ’em this could very well come back to haunt them in years to come if in fact the one admissions officer that’s reading their application is a particular side of a party. They took that a little bit to heart because they didn’t know that colleges are doing that these days.
Hixenbaugh: After 15 minutes on the call Em starts to crack.
Em: They didn’t clarify they were talking to a group. They were talking to me. Sorry, I’m frustrated. (CHUCKLE)
Duhon: Okay. Well, I understand. I’m sorry. You, okay?
Em: Yeah, I’m sorry. (CHUCKLE) By there was no one else in the group chat. Like, it was all directed at me. They called me a c**t. They called me slurs. They called me all this stuff. ‘Cause they didn’t clarify it was towards anyone else. I was added to the group chat.
They started slandering me because of the pronouns that I use. Like, it was all at me. Like, it was no debate. I was not responded. I never responded once. Like, there was no debate. There was no dialogue. It was just them, like, harassing me. It was– I don’t, like–
Duhon: But that’s what I’m saying though. I don’t ever see you involved in, and again, I don’t know how they works–
Hixenbaugh: At one point, Duhon turns to his dean for instruction and tries to make sense of everything.
Duhon: The only thing I can say is that she has to be added or she has to accept the invite ’cause they were just wanting to debate.
Hixenbaugh: Em asks Duhon to reread the messages in the chat.
Duhon: And okay, you can’t be a they. They’s plural. Haha, you literally can’t be more than one person. For real, for real. It’s a mental illness, not a sexuality. Hahaha.
Em: You understand how, like, they’re being mean to me because I use, they pronouns. And they’re calling it a mental illness. And they’re just misgendering me.
Hixenbaugh: Over the next ten instead Duhon and Em go over second of the messages and discuss their possible meanings. Duhon again raises the question about whether or not Em agreed to join the debate.
Duhon: And then so the next piece is she has to accept the invite. So, you never accept the invite–
Em: I didn’t have to accept any invite.
Duhon: All right. Well, I do appreciate you and I and Miss Schott being able to get together, and kinda again seeing your side of it and your perspective. And I’m gonna have a versus with one of the young men and his parents and kinda talk through some of these things here that were posted.
Em: Are you just gonna talk to them? Is that, like, all that’s happening? Or–
Hixenbaugh: Duhon explains that even if he ultimately ruled in Em’s favor there’s only so much, he can do. Because, he says, this was the first report about these students. Plus, he points out, the boys were in virtual classes, not physically at school, when they sent the messages.
Duhon: It’s not like we have somebody on campus that we see every day that, you know, we can assign a consequence or discipline or suspend or something of that nature.
Hylton: And this is where enforcement of the Student Code of Conduct comes in. Because under the code students can be disciplined for off-campus behavior, including cyber bullying. And the document says students who harass classmates based on their sexuality or gender can be suspended from school for the first offense–
Em: –doing it to me. And it’s, like, “Oh, just tell us if it happens again.” But, like, how many against have to happen to other people, you know? Like, it’s just annoying. I’m sorry.
Duhon: It’s okay. I’m sorry that you’re getting upset.
Em: I’m just upset. I’m angry right now. So, like, that’s why I’m emotional. But, like, I can take it. But, like, what if someone else can’t? That’s the annoying part. Like, I’m fine. But–
Duhon: Well, no, you shouldn’t have to take it.
Em: I know. That’s also that thing. But, like, how many other people does it have to happen to for something to, like, actually happen? Because–
Duhon: Right, but you also–
Em: –I know there are others–
Duhon: –have to understand this, is that if we don’t know about it, we can’t help you, right? So, this is the first time we’re hearing about something like this.
Hixenbaugh: After offering to rearrange Em’s schedule to make sure she doesn’t share a virtual class with the boys, Duhon wraps up the call.
Duhon: So, I appreciate you coming forward and letting us know.
Em: Yeah. Okay. (CHUCKLE) Thank you. Yeah.
Duhon: You, okay?
Em: I’m fine. (CHUCKLE)
Hixenbaugh: Before saying goodbye, Duhon says he’ll take a closer look at everything.
Duhon: All right. Well, sweetie, you have a good evening.
Em: Okay. Thank you. Have a nice day.
Duhon: All right. Yes, ma’am. You too.
Hylton: When you came off that call how were you left feeling?
Em: I just cried. It was, like, people were supposed to be helping me are doing quite the opposite. And the call was honestly, like, more hurtful than even what the people were saying in the chat.
Hylton: The way Em and her parents saw it, Duhon’s handling of her complaint showed the limitations of the code of conduct when enforcement is left in the hands of an administrator, who they said did not seem to understand why a queer student would be hurt by comments mocking their gender identity. And who didn’t seem to understand how social media works. After Em’s dad took a listen to the recording, he was angry.
Em’s Father: So first, my daughter’s really strong. Sorry. She’s looking for help. She’s calling out and saying, “Hey, these things are happening. And they’re not right.” And so, to have that fall on deaf ears is really discouraging.
Hylton: And what about the boys? To Em’s dad, Duhon’s warning to them was centered on how their vulgar messages to his daughter might hurt their own college applications. Why wasn’t the focus on teaching them why it’s wrong to mock a classmate about her gender I don’t think?
Hixenbaugh: After that Zoom call Em’s parents filed a formal complaint about Duhon’s handling of the situation, eventually elevating it to senior district administrators.
Em’s Father: You know, we were told that this is how other incidents are investigated and this is common. And so, what that suggested to me is that there may be other kids who might be in this situation.
Hixenbaugh: Duhon’s assistant principal, Paul Pinson, reviewed the case and found that his boss handled the situation appropriately. Pinson determined that the boys’ messages to Em did violate Carroll’s code of conduct. But he concluded that, quote, “It does not satisfy the criteria necessary to constitute bullying,” according to a copy of his report provided to Em’s parents.
Pinson didn’t respond to messages requesting comment. After signing off on Pinson’s findings, senior Carroll administrators did agree to make one change, according to documents we’ve seen. District leaders told Em’s parents in writing that they would be retraining principals and assistant principals across the district on how to investigate harassment allegations.
Hylton: But that didn’t seem like enough to Em’s parents. They had also demanded that the district give staff diversity and inclusion training so they would understand the unique issues queer stud like Em might face at school.
Em’s Father: In the message we got back was the temporary restraining order prevents them from conducting any kind of diversity training right now.
Hylton: As in the restraining order issued as a result of the lawsuit backed by Southlake Families PAC, the one blocking the district from taking any action to implement the CCAP.
Em’s Father: Which is shocking because these are employees that are working with our children every day. And if they can’t have a basic understanding of some of these things, just a basic proficiency, that it’s maybe endangering our kids when you do that.
Hixenbaugh: Like Raven Rolle two years earlier, the whole thing left Em feeling like the adults in Southlake weren’t looking out for kids like her.
Em: Like, I just wanted something to happen. I wanted, like, them to get in trouble. I wanted to have, like, I don’t know, comfort in the fact that, like, I’m not going through this for no reason. I felt even more unsafe. Because the people who are supposed to keep me safe were hurting me. I don’t know.
Hixenbaugh: Em was just a high school junior, not old enough to vote. But all of a sudden, this past spring she was paying very close attention to Southlake’s school board election. Watching, she said, for a sign of hope. (WHISTLING)
Hernandez: Hi guys. My name is Ed Hernanez. I’m running for the school board. Election is held today. I’m gonna leave a card here for you at the door.
Hylton: It’s Thursday, April 29th. Two days to go until election day in Southlake. And Ed Hernandez is out knocking on doors, making one last push to get people out to vote.
Hernandez: One oh eight. Two hundred is right there. Awesome. This makes my life really freaking easy.
Hylton: Ed moved to Southlake in 2016 with his wife and their three kids, including one with special needs. He’s carrying a list of names and addresses, supporters who he knows haven’t showed up during early voting. (DOORBELL)
Female Voice: Hi–
Hernandez: Hey, how are you? My name is Ed Hernandez. I’m running for the school board.
Male Voice: Hi.
Hernandez: And the local elections. So, I really need your support. It would help me out to do the right thing for the kids, okay?
Male Voice: Okay, no worries.
Hernandez: All right. No, I worry. I’m really worried. (LAUGH) I am. I am worried. So, I need your help.
Male Voice: Okay, no worries.
Hernandez: All right, perfect.
Male Voice: Thanks.
Hernandez: Thank you.
Hylton: Ed’s worried. Because his opponent Hannah Smith has raised more than $65,000 for her campaign. That would be a new record for a Carroll School Board race if it weren’t for the fact that Cam Bryan has raised even more than her. And that doesn’t count the support from Southlake Families PAC. The result? As election day draws near you can’t go two blocks in Southlake without spotting several dragon green Hannah and Cam yard signs. Always posted side by side.
Hernandez: I raised I think around $4500. I get this question, why my yard signs have printed only one side, not double-sided. And I’m, like, well, because it’s 30% cheaper. (CHUCKLE) Really simple.
Hylton: The race has gotten deeply personal. At one point the Tarrant County Democratic Party posted and then deleted an image on social media showing photos of all the candidates who oppose the diversity plan, including Smith and Bryan, and labeling them all as racist. Meanwhile, Southlake Family PAC sent out mailers accusing Ed and the pro-diversity plan candidates of pushing for radical socialism in Southlake.
Hernandez: It’s just competing for the school board. And I feel that I’m, I don’t know, like, running against this machine. Machine of disinformation. Machine of politics. If you don’t agree with the Southlake Families PAC, if you don’t agree with them, you become a Marxist. “Oh, he’s from the radical left.”
Hylton: Ed says he first thought about running for school board after reading the hundreds of accounts of racist and homophobic bullying collected by SARG, the Student Anti-Racism Group. It made Ed think differently about the idyllic Southlake bubble.
Hernandez: I couldn’t believe it. I guess for me personally that bubble just exploded. Just broke my heart. I think that this election means for Southlake who we are. It’s really about that. Who we are. You hear these comments from the Southlake Families, the PAC, that we are perfect. We’re great. On the other hand, there’s people, like, believe that we need changes. That believe that we need to keep our kids safe in school. We’ll see. I guess we’ll see at the polls.
Hixenbaugh: A few days before the election we went back to Southlake. And checked in with some of the people who’d been fighting for changes at Carroll. We also asked to spend time with Hannah Smith and Cam Bryan and other CCAP opponents, but they all declined.
Hylton: It had been four years since vandals carved KKK into the plaque at Frank Cornish Park, sparking the first big public conversation about racism in Southlake. Now Robin Cornish was looking to the school board election too. Robin, what’s at stake in this race?
Robin Cornish: Humanity. Decency. And those kids. The kids.
Hylton: As a resident of Fort Worth, she couldn’t vote in Southlake. But she says she wondered if the city her husband loved was ready to live up to his vision.
Cornish: My prayer is please, let’s work together to fix this. You know, let’s have mutual respect but let’s come together to realize some things are just not right. And humanity is not on the table for discussion.
Hixenbaugh: Frank’s old Cowboys teammate, Russell Maryland, was thinking about all the hours he and other volunteers put into developing a plan that was meant to protect kids. And what this election, centered on the CCAP, might say about his town. Is there a result Saturday where you will be left feeling differently about this town or your place in it or its future?
Russell Maryland: Well, it doesn’t change what I think about it. It’ll just let me what the score is on where we have to adjust. The work is gonna continue. It has to. It has to because our kids are relying on us. And they’re the ones who are suffering. And if we don’t, they’ll continue to suffer.
Hixenbaugh: But from the perspective of Southlake Families PAC, it was Russell Maryland and candidates like Ed Hernandez whose ideas were the real threat to kids. Outgoing mayor Laura Hill laid out the choice at one of the final campaign events.
Laura Hill: We have built an incredibly conservative community. The wealthiest, the good planning–
Hixenbaugh: A supporter recorded her remarks and posted them on Facebook.
Hylton: More than two years had passed since Hill started talking with parents like Robin Cornish, and promising to take action to address racism in Southlake. She had put together the Mayor’s Alliance for Unity and Culture and hosted bridge-building community events. But since then, Hill had openly criticized the Carroll School Board. And the people who were now saying the town had to do better–
Hill: Oh no, they loved it when they made the decision to come here and educate their children here. But now it’s not good enough for them.
Hixenbaugh: Standing in front of all five candidates backed by Southlake Families PAC, including Smith and Bryan, Hill explained that it’s been conservative leadership that’s made Southlake what it is today. They were the ones, she says, who’ve made Southlake great. And now they are its last line of defense.
Hill: We have a wonderful place to call home. And I shouldn’t have to turn on NBC or any other channel and be told that this isn’t one of the greatest cities in the country. (APPLAUSE) So right now that’s up to us. It is absolutely up to us. There is a fork in the road. We’re standing at it. I hope you’ll join me in voting for all of these folks. Thank you very much. (APPLAUSE)
Hixenbaugh: A fork in the road. Two paths to choose from. The stakes had been set. And now it was up to the people to decide which way to go.
Hylton: That’s next time on Southlake.
Hixenbaugh: From NBC News, this is the fifth of six episodes of Southlake, a series about belonging and backlash in an American suburb. If you like what you’ve heard please give us a five-star rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends. And follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening right now. Southlake was written, reported, and hosted by me, Mike Hixenbaugh.
Hylton: And by me, Antonia Hylton. The series is produced by Frannie Kelley. Our story editors are Julie Shapiro and Michelle Garcia. Production help and fact-checking by Rachel Yang. Sound design by Seth Samuel, Sharif Youssef, and Aaron Dalton. Original music by Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Bryson Barnes is our technical director. Reid Cherlin is our executive producer. Madeleine Haeringer is our head of editorial.
Hixenbaugh: Special thanks to our partners from the NBC News digital features unit, including Mariana Henninger, Christine Nguyen, Ala’a Ibrahim, and Tate James. You can stream their short film about the fight in Southlake at nbcnews.com/southlake. Or on Peacock.