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Inside Southlake: Texas suburb at center of a critical race theory battle looks forward

NBC News' new "Southlake" podcast goes inside the fight over a school diversity plan in a wealthy Texas community.

"Southlake" is a new NBC News podcast about belonging and backlash in a Texas suburb. Listen to the series here.

SOUTHLAKE, Texas — Last December, Lane Ledbetter landed his dream job as superintendent of one of the top-performing school systems in Texas: the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, where he grew up.

At 50, Ledbetter thought returning to his hometown would be a chance to give back to the community that shaped him. But so far, his tenure leading the district of 8,400 students has been dominated by a supercharged debate over how the suburban school system, 30 miles northwest of Dallas, handles issues of race, identity and student discipline.

The fight in Southlake has gotten so heated that it has led to misdemeanor criminal charges against two school board members who are accused of breaking open meeting laws while working to pass a diversity and inclusion plan last year. The board members deny wrongdoing, and the case and a separate civil lawsuit continue, leading to a restraining order that halted the district's work on the diversity plan.

Since then, some parents have packed school board meetings to condemn what the plan had proposed: new rules and lessons that would put more emphasis on race and diversity. Young progressive Southlake activists, meanwhile, have demanded that the district find a way to make changes to protect students of color and LGBTQ students from what they describe as a culture of bullying and harassment at Carroll, a majority-white district that has grown more diverse in recent years.

As students settle in at the start of a new school year, Southlake residents on both sides of the fight have largely looked to one man — Ledbetter — to find a path forward. It's not yet clear, however, what that path is.

"I do believe if any community can come through this, then certainly it's the city of Southlake and Carroll ISD," Ledbetter, who is white, said in a recent interview. "They can come through this."

The city's fight over the school diversity plan is the focus of a new six-part narrative podcast by NBC News. The series, "Southlake," documents the district's initial efforts to address racism after a 2018 viral video of white high schoolers chanting the N-word led dozens of Carroll parents and students to share stories of racist, insensitive and discriminatory incidents. The audio documentary also traces the rise of an organized and well-funded local campaign to kill the diversity plan and win control of the school board.

Listen to "Southlake" now on:

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With charges still pending against school board members and the civil lawsuit still open, tension remained high as Carroll students returned to school for in-person instruction this month.

Roshni Chowdhry was feeling nervous as her 12-year-old daughter prepared for her first day of seventh grade, and not just because the school district declined to require masks as Covid cases surged in Texas. Chowdhry, an immigrant from India, is also upset that the school system hasn't implemented the new diversity and inclusion policies.

"The issues aren't going to go away," Chowdhry said. "The issues that existed then are probably going to be more pronounced because all kids are back on campus now. So it's going to be interesting to see how they manage these issues as they creep up. We know that kids who have been hurt in the past have not had a place to go and share their experiences."

Conservative Southlake parents opposed to new diversity and inclusion programs, meanwhile, continue to argue that Carroll should focus on enforcing its existing student code of conduct rather than on coming up with new rules or training programs that they believe would place too much emphasis on race. They have repeatedly called for school board members who supported the diversity plan to resign, leading to fiery and sometimes tense exchanges at board meetings in recent months.

"You no longer get to implement your woke agenda on Carroll ISD," a mother, Tara Eddins, said during public comments this spring. "You need to resign, or we will continue to breathe fire upon this corrupt school board."

All seven school board members either declined interview requests or didn't respond.

Ledbetter, who spoke to NBC News last month, emphasized that the acrimony in Southlake isn't unique to his district. School board meetings across the country have become the front lines of a nationwide backlash against new diversity training and updated curriculums that examine the continuing legacy of racism in America. With help from Republican politicians and Fox News hosts, conservatives have incorrectly branded the programs as critical race theory, which is an academic study of racism's pervasive impact on society typically taught at the university level.

Ledbetter said he understands why parents have passionate feelings about what their children learn at school, but he — like many public school administrators across the country — said critical race theory hasn't been used as the basis for lessons in Carroll schools.

"This is going to have to be something that as a society, as a community, that we come together and work through," Ledbetter said. "So my priority as superintendent of schools has to be focusing on the kids, focusing on what we can do as a district to ensure our kids are safe and focusing on their well-being."

Residents aren't the only ones watching to see how Ledbetter and his administration try to bridge the divide. This spring, after a slate of conservative candidates here won landslide election victories for mayor, City Council and the school board, Southlake became a national symbol in the cultural and political battle.

But there are limits to what Ledbetter can say or do. He said the restraining order issued in the civil case blocks the district from advancing any type of new diversity education programs.

While the order remains in effect, Ledbetter said, he and his staff are still working on some changes that he hopes everyone can agree on, including processes to make sure students from all backgrounds feel safe reporting harassment and discrimination. The district has also created a student and staff services division focused on the issue.

"No students should feel unsafe," Ledbetter said. "And we're going to address that. But as a whole, I absolutely believe that people are proud of this community and proud to be a part of Carroll ISD."

Ledbetter said he met with parents and students on both sides of the fight this summer to reassure them that he was listening and to look for common ground. Ultimately, he said, any decisions he makes need to honor "the majority expectations and the values of this community."

And when asked whether he believed racism is a problem in Southlake or in its schools — two years after the viral N-word video ignited the reckoning here — he declined to answer.

"I don't know that I necessarily have to have a yes or no to that question," Ledbetter said. "For me, I am focused on — as I mentioned several times, my priority is the students."

CORRECTION (Aug. 30, 2021, 11:28 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Roshni Chowdhry’s daughter’s grade level. She started seventh grade this year, not sixth grade.