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Feds find civil rights violations in Southlake, Texas, schools, students' lawyers say

The district will have 90 days to reach an agreement with the Education Department on a plan to address discrimination, experts say.
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The U.S. Department of Education is seeking to negotiate with the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, over four students’ civil rights complaints — which three education law experts say signals that the department has substantiated the students’ allegations of racist and anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm described the next steps in its investigation in a letter Monday to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents the students. The development comes three years after the civil rights organization filed federal complaints on behalf of students who said Carroll officials failed to protect them from harassment.

The four students, all of whom have either graduated or left the district, reported to the Education Department that they had been subjected to a barrage of racist and homophobic slurs and comments during their years at Carroll. One student said he suffered retaliation after reporting racial harassment to administrators. Another said he contemplated suicide after classmates repeatedly mocked him for his sexual orientation; his family said the district failed to address the bullying.

On Monday, the Education Department notified the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that it had contacted Carroll district officials to begin negotiating a resolution agreement in the four complaints — a step the agency takes only after finding that students’ civil rights have been violated, said Katrina Feldkamp, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The Carroll ISD Administration Center in Southlake, Texas.
Eight federal civil rights complaints have been opened against the Carroll Independent School District. Nitashia Johnson for NBC News

The Southlake school system — which became the focus of national headlines in 2021 after conservative parents rejected a sweeping plan aimed at preventing discrimination — will now have 90 days to reach an agreement with the Education Department on steps it will take to address problems identified in the student complaints, experts said.

Angela Jones, a Black mother of a former Carroll student who was among those who complained to the Education Department, said she spent years advocating for changes to protect minority students in the affluent North Texas school district. But she was rebuffed by school board members and conservative parents who accused her and others of trying to force a far-left political ideology into classrooms. Jones said she and her family felt validated by the Education Department’s finding.

“They’re saying to the district, ‘You didn’t do it on your own, so we’re going to come in and make some recommendations for you to do it differently,’” Jones said. “I hope they’ll take it seriously, and re-evaluate and negotiate.”

Angela Jones and her husband, Dr. Wendell Jones.
Angela Jones and her husband, Dr. Wendell Jones, say their children faced discrimination in Southlake's public schools. Nitashia Johnson for NBC News
Photos of the children of Angela Jones and Dr. Wendell Jones at their home in Southlake.
Photos of the Jones children at their home in Southlake.Nitashia Johnson for NBC News

A spokesperson for the Education Department said the agency doesn’t comment on pending cases. Carroll Superintendent Lane Ledbetter and the school board’s president, Cam Bryan, did not respond to messages requesting comment.

The local debate over how to address racism in Carroll schools became a national symbol of the battles over race, gender and sexuality that have swept the country and was featured in the 2021 NBC News podcast series “Southlake.”

The town’s fight began in 2018, after a viral video of white high school students chanting the N-word spurred dozens of Carroll parents and students to come forward with stories of discrimination. After the outcry, the school board appointed a committee of volunteers, including Jones, to come up with strategies to address the problem. The result of their work, the Cultural Competence Action Plan, called for mandatory diversity training for teachers and students and changes to the student handbook explicitly prohibiting harassment on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, among other changes. Then came the backlash. 

After the plan was released in the summer of 2020, conservative parents and activists — outraged at what they depicted as anti-white and anti-American indoctrination — formed a political action committee called Southlake Families PAC, which promised to defeat the diversity plan and elevate “Judeo-Christian values” in the school district. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a slate of hard-line conservative candidates, launched attack ads accusing their opponents of being radical leftists and, in November 2021, won majority control of the Carroll school board.

Two weeks later, the Education Department opened its initial investigations into student complaints. The total number of civil right investigations at the district would eventually grow to eight. The status of the other four open cases is unclear.

The probes set the stage for a potential conflict between local voters who opposed the diversity plan and federal officials tasked with enforcing federal civil rights laws. Now that the Education Department has initiated the process to negotiate a resolution with the district in four of the complaints, the federal agency could end up requiring Carroll to implement some of the same types of diversity and inclusion programs that Southlake voters have rejected in landslide elections in recent years.

In a video address to the community after the investigations were announced in 2021, Ledbetter, Carroll’s superintendent, said the district would “absolutely comply” if the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) ordered changes. But some local activists have called on the district to fight back against what they see as federal overreach. They have spread unsubstantiated theories that the federal investigation was launched in retaliation against conservatives opposed to critical race theory.

U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, a Republican whose district includes Southlake, wrote a letter in November 2021 to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, co-signed by Republican 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.”

In a statement four months later, an Education Department spokesperson said the agency’s work is “in no way retaliatory and OCR serves as a neutral fact-finder with any complaint.”

In the years since gaining control of the school board, members backed by Southlake Families PAC have made changes that diversity advocates say have made the district less inclusive. The board voted in 2022 to eliminate language explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation and religion from the student handbook. And this week, the board adopted a resolution opposing the Biden administration’s decision to expand Title IX protections to LGBTQ students.

Southlake Carroll ISD board election day
Carroll ISD's school board elections in Southlake, Texas, became a referendum on the district's diversity policies.James Breeden for NBC News

Ledbetter and members of the school board did not respond to a question from NBC News about whether it planned to work with the Education Department to reach a voluntary agreement.

W. Scott Lewis, managing partner at TNG, a consulting firm that advises school districts on complying with federal civil rights laws, said that if Carroll fails to reach a voluntary agreement with the Office for Civil Rights on how to address discrimination, the agency could impose changes that Carroll would have to abide by or risk losing federal funding or inviting an investigation by the Department of Justice.

Another approach that the district could take, Lewis said: Carroll could challenge the Education Department’s findings in court. “That’s not typically been very successful,” Lewis said.

Feldkamp, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney, said her clients have asked the Education Department to require Carroll to implement many of the policies that were included in the Cultural Competence Action Plan, including mandatory diversity training for students and staff members.

“We need to send a message that we will not tolerate Black and brown students being pushed out of school, that it is unacceptable for racism and homophobia to win the day and that our public schools actually are supposed to be educational institutions where all students can feel supported and can thrive,” Feldkamp said.

On Wednesday, two community activist groups that had joined the civil rights complaints — the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition and Cultural & Racial Equity for Every Dragon — sent a letter to Carroll officials calling on the district to agree “to remedies that will address the hostile environment” and “fulfill your responsibility to protect all students.”

Raven Rolle, a 23-year-old Black Carroll graduate and Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition member, said it shouldn’t have taken federal investigations for the district to listen to current and former students like herself who’ve shared stories of harassment. 

Raven Rolle.
Carroll graduate Raven Rolle said she hopes the federal civil rights investigations lead to changes to benefit future students.Courtesy Raven Rolle

“Hopefully it sets a precedent for the kids that are currently there and kids who will be there years from now that these things will never happen again, and if they do, they’ll be dealt with appropriately,” Rolle said.

Mia Mariani, a 19-year-old college student living in Pittsburgh, was among the former Carroll students notified this week that the Education Department was taking action in response to her complaint of anti-LGBTQ bullying at Carroll. 

Mariani, whose story was detailed in the “Southlake” podcast, was bombarded by a torrent of vulgar messages from classmates on social media mocking her gender identity during a social studies class in the spring of 2022. After reporting the abuse, she secretly recorded her meeting with the principal, who argued that the boys who’d harassed her “were just wanting to debate” politics.  After her parents filed a complaint over the school’s handling of the situation, senior Carroll administrators investigated and concluded that Mariani’s complaint did “not satisfy the criteria necessary to constitute bullying.”

Now it appears the Department of Education has found evidence that her rights were violated.

Mariani said she was surprised when she got the news Monday. She’s worked to move on from her experiences in Southlake, she said, but hopes her case leads to changes for current and future students.

“Any change for them,” Mariani said, “is healing for me.”