SOUTHLAKE, Texas — After the Department of Education’s civil rights enforcement arm announced in November that it was investigating students’ allegations of discrimination and bullying at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, conservative parents and politicians were outraged.
Southlake Mayor John Huffman issued a statement suggesting that the federal investigation might have been launched to retaliate against the city for electing three school board members who opposed a plan for new diversity and inclusion training programs, which they characterized as a ploy to indoctrinate students with critical race theory.
The Southlake Families PAC, which raised tens of thousands of dollars campaigning against the diversity initiative at Carroll schools, sent an email to supporters floating the possibility that the civil rights investigation was being steered by the Department of Justice as part of a broader plot against conservatives.
And U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, a Republican whose district includes Southlake, responded by writing a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, co-signed by several GOP lawmakers including Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, expressing fears that the Biden administration was “weaponizing federal resources to intimidate parents who disagree with the policies of this administration.”
There’s no evidence that the investigation at Carroll — which focuses on allegations by three students who say they were bullied based on their race, gender and national origin — was opened in response to Southlake’s elections.
But if the probe by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights finds systemic problems at Carroll, legal experts say the agency could end up requiring the school district to implement some of the same types of diversity and inclusion programs that Southlake voters rejected in a pair of landslide elections last year.
Some parents are counting on it.
“The only way we're going to get any change in here is if the Department of Education comes in and does something,” said Jennifer Hough, a Southlake mother who lobbied for the diversity plan. “Our kids are going to keep suffering unless they come in and say, ‘Y'all have to do something to protect these kids.’”
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The conflict in Southlake, a conservative suburb northwest of Dallas, reveals a tension that’s emerged as a result of the nationwide movement by Republicans to restrict the ways schools can teach and talk about race and LGBTQ issues. Local decisions and a wave of new state laws to ban or limit diversity and inclusion lessons could put school districts at odds with longstanding federal efforts to protect students from discrimination.
Activists and politicians on both sides of the critical race theory debate, as well as education policy experts, are watching the outcome in Southlake to see how far the federal government is willing to go to force a school district to make changes that may be unpopular with voters.
“Even if there's an election of a school board and they're rejecting critical race theory being taught — or whatever they may imagine critical race theory is — certainly if there is discriminatory behavior against anyone on the basis of a protected class, it needs to be addressed,” said W. Scott Lewis, managing partner at TNG, a consulting firm that advises school districts on complying with federal civil rights laws.
Lewis said investigators will most likely be scrutinizing what the district is doing to train staff members and students on respecting people of different races, genders and cultures, “because if there’s no education happening, obviously that could be one of the contributing factors to the bullying.”
The implications extend beyond Southlake. As of early February, the Office for Civil Rights had 248 ongoing investigations into school districts over allegations that administrators mishandled reports of harassment against students on the basis of their race, gender or national origin, including several districts that have faced pressure over the past year to disband diversity education efforts.
Office for Civil Rights investigations can sometimes take years, and in the end, if investigators confirm that a school system failed to protect a student’s rights, the agency often settles the matter by getting districts to commit to making policy changes to help prevent future discrimination.
Those changes, spelled out in hundreds of formal resolution agreements posted on the agency’s website, frequently include the implementation of training programs to educate students and staff on how to respect people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations — the very programs under fire from conservatives nationwide.
Luke Jackson, a Department of Education spokesperson, said the Office for Civil Rights does not comment on pending cases. In a statement, Jackson said the agency’s work is “in no way retaliatory and OCR serves as a neutral fact-finder with any complaint.”
In a December letter responding to Van Duyne, Cardona, the education secretary, said the Department of Justice was not involved in the Southlake investigation. However, if his agency finds violations of students’ civil rights at Carroll and the school system refuses to implement changes, the Department of Education can pull the district’s funding and refer the matter to the DOJ.
The potential conflict isn’t just brewing at the local level. In more than two dozen Republican-controlled states, lawmakers have passed or introduced legislation banning or restricting various types of diversity training in public schools.
Proponents of these measures say the goal is to stop schools from teaching children about concepts like white privilege and microaggressions, and other ideas sometimes embedded in diversity lessons that conservatives have branded as critical race theory, which is the study of systemic racism’s impact on society.
“The problem is most of these bills are so vague, that it’s not really clear what types of trainings are included,” said Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, a nonprofit group that promotes free speech. “Diversity trainings are a big, capacious category that includes a lot of different things, some of which is completely unobjectionable, and some of which is more controversial. And the bills do a terrible job of sorting out what’s allowed and what isn’t.”
The pressure to get rid of these programs presents a potential problem for school districts, according to Lewis and other school policy and legal experts.
“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 and appreciation or tolerance … and that then leads to harassment or bullying, the OCR is going to get involved,” Lewis said. “So it creates that tension.”
‘We will absolutely comply’
The Carroll school district’s attempts to address racism began in 2018, following the release of a video of white high school students chanting the N-word. After the video went viral, dozens of parents, students and recent graduates came forward with stories of racist and anti-LGBTQ harassment at Carroll, a majority-white district that has grown more diverse in recent years.
The district’s proposal to address the issues, the 34-page Cultural Competence Action Plan, would have required diversity training for all students and teachers, a new process to report and track incidents of racist bullying, and changes to the code of conduct to hold students accountable for acts of discrimination, among other changes.
But after the district unveiled the plan in August 2020, conservative parents packed school board meetings, formed a political action committee and funded a parent’s civil lawsuit to block the changes. They argued that the plan would have created “diversity police” and amounted to “reverse racism” against white children.
In the year that followed, conservative candidates supported by Southlake Families PAC, a group formed to defeat the diversity plan, won majority control of the Carroll school board. The board then voted in December to settle the parent’s civil lawsuit, officially killing the plan.
Rather than implement any type of diversity training, the school board instead pushed for changes last summer to improve the process for investigating student complaints, with the goal of ensuring that students from all backgrounds feel safe reporting harassment and discrimination. The district also created a student and staff services division focused on the issue.
“If OCR determines that there are steps that we can take beyond what we have implemented, then we will absolutely comply,” Carroll Superintendent Lane Ledbetter said in a video address to the community after news of the federal civil rights investigation broke in November. “My priorities are kids, and we’re going to keep them safe.”
Carroll spokesperson Karen Fitzgerald didn’t respond to messages requesting comment. In November, Fitzgerald issued a statement saying the district was cooperating with the investigation.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have continued to question the Department of Education’s work in Southlake.
Last month, Van Duyne, the Republican congresswoman, wrote a follow-up letter to the education secretary, demanding to know what his agency was doing to ensure that the views of Southlake residents were being taken into consideration as part of the investigation, echoing a statement she posted soon after the probe was announced.
“Voting against Democrats and liberal policies is not illegal and does not warrant a federal investigation, and I stand with parents, students, and local leaders to shine a light on this overreach,” she said. “I am conducting my own investigation into this egregious weaponization of federal resources designed to intimidate and punish parents.”
Parents resist change
Carroll isn’t the only district currently being investigated by the Office for Civil Rights over allegations of racist bullying while at the same time facing pressure from parents to get rid of diversity training programs meant to prevent discrimination.
In December, the Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the Daniel Boone Area School District in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, over its handling of racial harassment allegations. The complaint was filed by a chapter of the NAACP on behalf of the mother of a Black high school student who described years of racist bullying at the district, about an hour outside of Philadelphia.
The mother agreed to speak with NBC News on the condition that she not be named, because she fears retaliation against her family.
She said her son has been traumatized by his years at Daniel Boone. Beginning in middle school, she said white students would ask her son for an “N-pass” — permission to use the N-word around him without consequences. His answer to the requests didn’t matter; she said kids still routinely use racial slurs around her son.
When she complained to the school, she said an administrator told her there wasn’t much he could do since the word often appears in the lyrics of popular rap songs. The mother also reported incidents of students posting racist images and comments on social media.
Rob Flowers, the district’s director of community relations and equity awareness, said in an interview that he couldn’t comment on the OCR investigation or the mother’s allegations. He said the district shares the goal of protecting marginalized students and creating a culture where every child feels safe and welcomed, and has been striving to make that a reality in recent years.
Flowers, who is Black, also serves as head football coach at Daniel Boone Area High School. In his administrative role, he hosts regular diversity and inclusion lectures and training sessions for students and staff. The goal, he said, is to establish a culture of respect and acceptance in the majority-white school district.
“By no means have we solved the problem,” said Flowers, citing research that connects an emphasis on equity and inclusion with an improved learning environment for students. “We have not said that we are the masters of doing this, but we know that we're trying to do as best we can to have that respect to all of our students, families, staff and community members.”
Meanwhile, some parents have argued that Flowers is already doing too much.
At an October school board meeting, speakers accused Flowers of “brainwashing” students with Marxist ideologies intended to make children feel guilt based on their race, which Flowers denies. One parent said the messages in Flowers’ lessons are “every bit as racist as a Klan.”
Despite the attacks, Flowers said district leaders have so far remained steadfast in their support for his work.
The mother who initiated the Office for Civil Rights investigation said those efforts haven’t been enough. In her complaint, which she shared with NBC News, the mother called on the district to implement changes, including the creation of a department to handle allegations of discrimination and more robust diversity and inclusion training for students and staff.
“I think the whole student body needs to be educated,” the mother said.
A push for systemic changes
Four months after the civil rights investigation was opened at Carroll, Southlake parents and students who’d been calling for changes are keeping the pressure on.
In February, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights law firm based in New York, filed an additional complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of two Southlake-based advocacy groups as well as four Carroll students who say they’ve experienced harassment at school.
“We thought it was really important for OCR to understand that this was not simply an issue of individual incidents, but rather there was a systemic problem within the district,” said Cara McClellan, the civil rights lawyer working on the case.
In the filing, the civil rights group called on the agency to order Carroll to implement several policy changes that were previously rejected by the school board as part of the district’s diversity plan, including hiring a director of diversity, implementing “culturally responsive curriculum,” committing to hiring more diverse teachers, and training students and staff on issues “pertaining to racism, sexism and homophobia.”
Christina Edmiston’s 12-year-old son, Christian, is one of the unnamed students cited in the NAACP complaint. Edmiston pulled Christian out of Carroll last year after repeatedly reporting incidents of students bullying him for his sexuality. The harassment culminated in Christian’s sixth-grade classmates encouraging him to kill himself at recess, Edmiston said.
In response to a grievance Edmiston filed against the district over its handling of her son’s case, a senior Carroll administrator acknowledged in writing that the school should have opened a formal investigation into Christian's bullying allegations back when he first reported them in the spring of 2021. The district denied Edmiston’s request to discipline the principal who handled the case, noting that he and other principals had since been retrained in how to investigate student allegations.
Christian is doing better at his new school, Edmiston said, but she worries about students still at Carroll.
“I don't want what happened to Christian to happen to any other child,” she said. “I'm hoping that by the Department of Education investigating it, that it will actually kind of light a fire and make Carroll change.”