Southlake: episode 4
The Circus Comes to Town
Mike Hixenbaugh: On September 1st, 2020, one month after the school board in Southlake, Texas, unveiled its proposed cultural competence action plan, a conservative activist and filmmaker named Christopher Rufo appeared on Fox News.
Tucker Carlson: Yeah, Christopher Rufo, thanks so much for coming on. Appreciate it.
Christopher Rufo: Yeah, thanks so much. This is really the bottom line...
Hixenbaugh: Rufo, a senior fellow at a conservative think tank had come to sound an alarm about what he saw as an emerging threat in America. And although Rufo was speaking from a studio in Seattle, his comments that night would end up having a big impact on the school diversity plan fight in Southlake.
Rufo: You know, Tucker, it's absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded every institution in the federal government...
Antonia Hylton: Critical race theory. No doubt you've heard that phrase by now. It's a decades old academic study of systemic racism and its far-reaching impact on society. Back in September 2020, the average person had probably never heard of it. But Rufo, more than anyone else last year, believed that needed to change.
Rufo: But conservatives need to wake up, that this is an existential threat to the United States, the president and the White House, it's within their authority and power to immediately issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government...
Hylton: Rufo, it seems, found a willing audience in President Donald Trump, because on September 4th, three days after that Fox News hit, the White House issued a memo doing exactly what Rufo had asked for. It banned any federal workplace training programs based on critical race theory, which the memo falsely defined as a philosophy teaching that people of certain races are, quote, "Inherently racist or evil." Two weeks later, in a speech about American history at the National Archives, Trump called critical race theory child abuse and warned that it was on the march.
Donald Trump: Critical race theory is being forced into our children's schools, it's being imposed into workplace trainings, and it's being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families...
Hixenbaugh: After Trump gave that speech, references to critical race theory exploded in conservative media. It was mentioned more than 70 times on Fox News that September, up from just a few references the whole year prior according to a search of news transcripts. And seemingly overnight, many parents in Southlake had discovered a new way of framing what had been bothering them about all this diversity, equity, and inclusion talk.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory is wrong. It denies human nature.
Hylton: Critical race theory came up twice at the first Carroll school board meeting after Trump's speech.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory, it's a theatrical framework rooted in Marxism that has...
Hylton: And it's been a fixture at almost every meeting since.
Archival Recording: CCAP is rooted in critical race theory.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory, or Court.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory indoctrination.
Archival Recording: Any and all critical race theory curriculum.
Archival Recording: The CRT training at (UNINTEL).
Archival Recording: Critical race theory. Critical race theory.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory-based policies have been snuck into schools across the country without the approval of their communities.
Archival Recording: The agenda of critical race theory.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory.
Archival Recording: Critical race theory or CRT.
Archival Recording: CRT.
Archival Recording: CRT training.
Archival Recording: CRT.
Archival Recording: We do not want CRT training.
Archival Recording: CRT, right?
Archival Recording: And I stand here and ask each and every one of you if someone can explain to me why I should embrace critical race theory.
Hylton: This sudden fixation on critical race theory in Southlake showed the growing connection between this local school board debate and national politics. It also raised the stakes.
Hixenbaugh: Because if you believed Christopher Rufo and President Trump, then Carroll's Cultural Competence Action Plan wasn't just a misguided local school policy or an overreaction to kids making dumb jokes, as some parents initially argued. It was an attempt to teach white children to be ashamed of their heritage and to hate America. In President Trump's telling, critical race theory was ripping apart friends, neighbors, and families.
Hylton: Well, in a roundabout way, he was right, because the feud in Southlake was about to get personal. From NBC News, I'm Antonia Hylton.
Hixenbaugh: I'm Mike Hixenbaugh.
Hylton: And this is Southlake Chapter Four: The Circus Comes to Town.
Hixenbaugh: Even as the outrage over critical race theory started to ramp up, there was something else that ended up raising the temperature in Southlake: the national media, specifically Antonia and me. Our role in all this started last September, one week after President Trump gave that speech meaning CRT for the first time. Where are you based now? Are you in Austin, or where are you staying?
Allen West: No, right now I'm in Houston...
Hixenbaugh: I was on the phone with Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West. I'd been working on a story for NBC about how the 2020 presidential race was pitting neighbors against each other in fast-growing suburbs. All summer, Trump had been claiming that Democrats and racial justice protesters were on a mission to destroy suburbia. I was curious whether people in Texas were buying that message, and West seemed like someone who would know.
West: Well, I will give you an anecdotal evidence, Southlake, Texas, which is...
Hixenbaugh: Southlake, Texas. I'm based in Houston, but it was the first time I was hearing about the fight there. This was less than a month, by the way, after West gave that speech to fire up the troops at Southlake Families PAC.
West: If you don't understand that, go back to where you came from. (CHEERING)
Hixenbaugh: On the phone with me, West was saying something about how parents in Southlake had banded together to stop a liberal takeover of the school system. It was a passing reference during a 20-minute conversation, but it caught my attention. You mentioned Southlake, Texas. Is that something that's been in the news?
West: Well, I mean, you can look up Southlake Families PAC and how that was established and why it was established.
Hixenbaugh: I'm gonna check that out. Hey, I appreciate it. Safe travels--
West: Yeah, bye bye.
Hixenbaugh: All right, bye. I made a note to circle back to the Southlake thing once the presidential election was over. A few months later, in December, I googled the words, "Southlake" and "CCAP", and the first thing that came up was a recent article in the Dallas Morning News.
The headline said, Judge Halts Carroll ISD's Diversity Plan After Opponents Win Temporary Restraining Order. I was coming to the story at what turned out to be a major turning point. A Tarrant County judge had issued an order blocking the Carroll School System from taking any action to continue working on the diversity plan, pending the outcome of a lawsuit brought by a parent, the one we told you about last episode.
West was right, these parents really had fought back. I had the feeling this might be a big story, so I teamed up with Antonia to tell it. We spent weeks making phone calls, trying to get opponents of the diversity plan to talk to us, and getting up to speed on everything that had happened in town since 2018.
Archival Recording: It was kind of a slap in the face.
Archival Recording: It's like Southlake's dirty, dark secret, and you all can't hide this anymore.
Archival Recording: I left that meeting saying, "This is unacceptable and this is not gonna be the way it is under my watch.
Hylton: And that is how the battle in Southlake became national news. Mike's written story was published online on January 22nd. A few weeks later the TV package I put together was broadcast to millions of viewers. (NBC Nightly News theme)
Archival Recording: This is NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.
Lester Holt: We wanna turn now to our series State of the Struggle, and our new report from a Texas town where a viral video led to a reckoning over race and sparked a battle...
Hylton: Both pieces focused on Robin Cornish, how she'd spoken out after the viral N-word video in 2018, and how she was now feeling conflicted about her decision to keep her kids in Carroll after her husband's sudden death 13 years ago.
Robin Cornish: I just really want them to really think about is this the tradition that you really wanna protect? Is this the story that you really want this town to tell?
Hylton: But that wasn't the end of Robin's Southlake story.
Hixenbaugh: Because the way conservatives in town saw it, Robin had just done the unthinkable. With our help, she'd aired the city's dirty laundry in front of a national audience and unfairly defamed a good town, a town that had done so much to help her and her children after Frank died.
Hylton: Initially, most of the backlash was aimed our way. Juan Saldivar, the Dragon dad you heard from last episode, wrote a Facebook post directed at Mike, calling his reporting "fake journalism" and saying, quote, "All you deserve from Americans of all stripes is the double-barreled middle finger. Come see me and I will give it to you myself."
Hixenbaugh: Our coverage came up at board meetings too, specifically the claim that a PR firm hired by the school district had planted the story with us as a way to rally support for the diversity plan.
Archival Recording: Our taxpayer money was used to write a story slandering parents who support free speech and transparency...
Hixenbaugh: That isn't true. As you just heard, it was Allen West who put us on to the story, and we've had no communication with anyone at the PR firm. But the conspiracy theory started to take hold.
Archival Recording: And we know that these stories just don't magically appear. I mean, PR people reach out, they pitch stories, and they reach reporters that are sympathetic to their political slant...
Hylton: Soon, though, the focus of the blowback turned to Robin. One day in March, a couple weeks after our stories ran, Robin's phone started buzzing.
Cornish: My text messages start blowin' up that, "Have you seen the video Laura Hill just put out?" And I'm like, "What?" I pull it up and I see it.
Laura Hill: For the past 16 years I have had the privilege of representing our community as a city council...
Hylton: Southlake Mayor Laura Hill had gone to Frank Edgar Cornish Park and recorded a new video for the city's social media feeds, this time a scripted speech reacting to the national coverage of her town.
Hill: The park where I'm standing is named after the late Frank Cornish...
Hylton: A few years earlier, Robin and Mayor Hill had stood in this park together after Frank's plaque was vandalized with the words "KKK will get you Black people." Now the mayor was there alone, telling a story about grabbing coffee with Frank, back when he was on the parks and rec board. She says Frank told her about his ambition to be mayor one day.
Hill: And there was no question in my mind that it was a real possibility. I never perceived that his race would have been an issue, as he was well-respected and his contributions to Southlake were extensive and notable. The controversy we are facing in Southlake has me reflecting on Frank's legacy...
Hylton: Robin says she was stunned as she watched the clip. Mayor Hill seemed to be saying that because Frank had been so well-liked, that proved that anyone could do anything here, regardless of their race.
Hixenbaugh: Hill didn't mention the trauma Frank's kids say they experienced at school; the part of the story Robin had just shared on national TV. Hill instead turned to what she saw as the real source of Southlake's troubles of late: the school district's botched diversity efforts.
Hill: The path forward must include a strategy about how the elected Carroll ISD board will regain this community's trust and calm the bitterness and animosity that has clearly taken root.
Hixenbaugh: We requested an interview with Hill but she declined. Robin says it seemed to her like the mayor was trying to co-opt her husband's legacy.
Cornish: I felt like that was the most disrespectful, despicable thing you could do. And I felt like that was-- honestly, she was calling me out and intimidating me, and using Frank's legacy once again to pardon the bad behavior. But here's the irony, you sayin' that you never thought that his race would be an issue, the same park where you were crying and licking your fingers and trying to wipe off the racial epithets that were carved into his plaque. But you never thought his race would be an issue.
Hixenbaugh: Mayor Hill wasn't the only one in town talking about Cornishes’ story and what it meant for Southlake. Rumors started to spread. One mom who'd been vocally opposed to the diversity plan called me up and told me we'd made a mistake by focusing our reporting on Robin and her children.
Hylton: A few days later in April, it became clear what that mom had been referring to.
Guy Midkiff: Hey everybody, welcome to Wise Guy Talks episode 38. This is the wise guy...
Hixenbaugh: Guy Midkiff, the school board meeting regular, otherwise known as the wise guy, made public what lots of diversity plan opponents in Southlake had been talking about. On April 15th, he and a guest identified only as Robert dropped a 34-minute podcast episode devoted to investigating Robin and Frank's financial struggles from two decades ago.
Robert: So, on September 27th, 2001, the Cornishes filed for bankruptcy to protect their home from foreclosure...
Hixenbaugh: Midkiff and his friend had poured over old court documents tied to one of the Cornishes' bankruptcy filings.
Robert: So, within that less than two-year period, they were almost a full year behind in mortgage payments...
Hixenbaugh: And they dug up public records detailing the various addresses where Robin and her kids had lived after Frank died.
Robert: Between 2008 and 2010, she rented a home at 1710 Falcon Drive...
Hylton: The reason they said they were bringing all this up, the way Midkiff and his friend saw it, we had deceived our audience by focusing our reporting on someone who no longer lived in Southlake and by failing to note that in our stories.
Midkiff: I take no pleasure in revealing Miss Cornish's role in this deception...
Hylton: A reminder, Robin had moved half a mile outside Southlake's city limits after her husband died, a seven-minute drive to Carroll Senior High School, and she was invited to keep her kids in the district under an open enrollment policy for students forced to move after the death of a parent.
Robert: These are not the actions of a woman protecting her family from a racist town. These are the actions of a woman desperately trying to keep her kids in a great school district...
Hixenbaugh: Toward the end of the episode, Midkiff said he'd been hearing from Southlake residents who'd helped Robin out after Frank died, shuttling her kids to school and donating money to their college fund.
Midkiff: But people in this community helped her quite a bit, and they feel like they've been stabbed right in the back. You got any closing comments that you wanna make?
Robert: That's all I got. NBC, you owe us an apology.
Midkiff: Yeah, I second that bro. All right, this is Wise Guy Talks...
Hixenbaugh: I contacted Midkiff to request an interview, and we ended up talking on the phone for almost an hour, though we agreed not to record each other. He repeated his belief that our reporting on Robin's story defamed his town. But as for an interview, he said if I wanted to record a conversation with him, I'd have to appear on his show. I wasn't willing to do that, and we left it there.
Hylton: As you drive towards Southlake, how do you feel?
Cornish: I kinda get anxious...
Hylton: This spring, a couple months after our stories ran, we took a drive through Southlake with Robin.
Cornish: Right now, it's kinda like I'm always, I have my head on a swivel, as they say, 'cause I just never know what's gonna happen in that town. I don't know if...
Hylton: Robin was upset when she heard Midkiff's podcast. After he posted it, other rumors started to spread about her. Some residents were falsely claiming that she'd sued the school district to keep her kids in Carroll. Someone else posted copies of her family's old bankruptcy documents on a community Facebook page.
Cornish: What does my financial history have anything to do, tie into my children, them getting their education, and having the racist, bigoted experiences that they have?
Hixenbaugh: A couple times, residents she'd never met talked about her at school board meetings, even going after one of her adult daughters who'd recently taken a job as an instructional assistant with the Carroll School District.
Archival Recording: Why did we hire Robin Cornish's daughter to teach at Durham Intermediate School? We don't need any more 20-something, woke, social crusade warriors to come into our town and teach my children they are white racists because of the color of their skin...
Hylton: At her apartment in nearby Fort Worth, where Robin moved in 2019, she told us how she was handling it all.
Cornish: I lost my husband. I've been knocked down a few times. I lost my home. I lost my money. You know, you kinda crawl back to your corner and you get doctored up and get your band-aids, and you say, "Okay, pull it together." As, you know, he used to say to me, "Pull it together Cornish." And I get back up and I'm gonna go back in the ring and I'm gonna keep fighting. The one thing my husband always taught me, you don't walk away from something that you know is right and needs to be changed.
Hylton: At any point, have these rumors that have spread, the information about your financial history, has all of that made you reconsider your decision to speak up?
Hylton: Have you ever regretted it?
Cornish: No. You know, when you're late at night and you're licking your wounds and you feel bad, for a moment I'm like, "Maybe if I never had talked to him, (LAUGH) then I wouldn't"--
Hylton: Him being Mike?
Cornish: Mike, (LAUGH) yeah, this would not have happened.
Hixenbaugh: That's fair. But this spring, as the fight in Southlake intensified, it became clear that Robin wasn't the only one with a target on her back.
Hylton: In January 2021, around the same time that the Southlake diversity plan fight was making national news, yet another video made by Carroll students was going viral.
Archival Recording: How dare you teach my child about cultural competence.
Hylton: This one, however, was cut together by the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition, or SARC, the group of high school students and recent grads that had been pushing for changes at Carroll. The video's circus music really sets the tone. Text flashes on the screen explaining that adults in Southlake have been trying to stop the Carroll School District from implementing a diversity plan. Then it gives a sampling of their comments at school board meetings.
Archival Recording: Decentered whiteness and white privileges, those are racist terms.
Archival Recording: You know, in our very large family I am the only white American. So, I guess I'm the minority in my family. I don't think I deserve special rules...
Hixenbaugh: The video angered a lot of parents who, according to their comments at board meetings and in social media posts, felt like they were being mocked for voicing conservative political beliefs. The video included just short soundbites from each parent, and it's clear from the clip selection, the goal wasn't to paint any of them in a flattering light.
Archival Recording: My child does not even know what the word "minority" means, but you all are gonna teach it to him.
Hylton: But things really heated up when pop star Demi Lovato, who grew up in nearby Grapevine, Texas, shared the video on Instagram where they have more than 100 million followers. Lovato wrote, "It is horrifying to see how some of the parents at Carroll ISD in Southlake, Texas, are literally fighting to uphold white supremacy."
Hixenbaugh: A lawyer representing one of the dads featured in the video sent SARC a cease-and-desist letter, arguing that his client's comments had been deceptively edited to portray him as a racist. No lawsuit has been filed. In a statement, members of SARC defended the video, writing, quote, "If any of these individuals are ashamed of their statements or how they may be perceived by the public, then they should reconsider why they felt justified making these statements in front of the school board."
Hylton: At a school board meeting three days after Lovato's post, Carroll's new superintendent, Lane Ledbetter, addressed the SARC video in his first public remarks to the community.
Lane Ledbetter: And I'm gonna be very clear, I don't think that's the appropriate way to handle this. I don't think doing things like that is going to move this district forward. I don't think solutions are gonna happen in this district being solved on social media...
Hixenbaugh: Ledbetter, who's white, is a Carroll class of 1989 graduate. His mom was a Carroll teacher. His dad, a legendary Dragon Football coach. Coming back to lead this district, he says, was his dream job. But he couldn't have returned at a more fraught time. His number one priority was ending the bitter dispute over the diversity plan.
Ledbetter: We're not gonna solve it in the courtroom. It's gonna be solved by bringing people together in this community and sitting down with a willingness to work together and to do the things that this community knows how to do. The longer we have the division in the community, the longer it's gonna take to get past this. I don't want this to be the reputation of Carroll ISD...
Hixenbaugh: Speakers from both sides reacted positively to Ledbetter's call for unity during public comments that night. But the warm feelings didn't last. In the days and weeks that followed, residents went right back to attacking each other on social media. And as the debate dragged on, the voices of studs who'd come forward with stories of racism were increasingly fading to background noise, drowned out by adults arguing over that three-word phrase: critical race theory.
Archival Recording: We see the absurdity in critical race theory, which teaches your guilt is found not in your character, but your melanin count.
Hixenbaugh: Parents who'd supported the diversity plan, like Russell Maryland, tried to make clear that CRT wasn't the issue here.
Russell Maryland: Critical race theory is not in the District Diversity Council's well-thought-out comprehensive plan.
Hylton: But then opponents would fire back.
Archival Recording: If critical race theory is not in the school's plans, then put it in writing. That's all anybody's asked. This is what I have said to those that state that. And then they get quiet, because they don't want to do it...
Hylton: The debate in Southlake became an endless back and forth. Diversity plan opponents demanding that critical race theory be kept out of their schools, supporters trying to prove a negative, that it already wasn't in the plan. All of it made even more confusing by the fact that CRT had now become a stand-in for ideas that the framework itself doesn't speak to, chiefly that Carroll was now going to teach white kids that they're racist and teach Black kids that they're victims.
Hixenbaugh: In reality, critical race theory doesn't deal at all with whether or not any individual person is racist. It's the study of how policies, even ones that aren't explicitly about race, like housing or voting laws, can drive racial inequality. It's complicated. Not the kind of thing that busy parents, no matter their political leanings, can easily learn in the car on the way to a school board meeting.
Kimberlé crenshaw: People don't know what it is, but now there's a name for that thing that goes creak in the night.
Hylton: That's Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the scholars who developed critical race theory more than 30 years ago. Today, she's a law professor at Columbia and UCLA. She told me she saw all of this coming.
Crenshaw: I've been trying to tell people for at least six months that the effort to respond to the reckoning of last summer, the reckoning about George Floyd, the reckoning about Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery was going to metastasize into a backlash.
And that backlash was looking for a name. It was looking for a boogeyman. It was looking for some concept or group that all the anxious that were unleashed around the reckoning would attach itself to. And in September when then-President Trump stepped forward and said that it was critical race theory, I thought, "Okay, so they've found their boogeyman."
Hylton: Has critical race theory trickled down from academia into our public school system? Do you see evidence of that?
Crenshaw: Well, I mean, I can't say that I'm answering calls every day (LAUGH) about, you know, "Come to our school board and talk about critical race theory." I'm not, myself, seeing this kind of conversation happening in K through 12. Now, is it the case that there are conversations about diversity? Is there a curriculum that says, "Some people were already here, some people came in slave ships, and some people came voluntarily"? I should certainly hope so...
Hylton: Crenshaw described this crusade against critical race theory as a runaway train.
Crenshaw: And before we know it, students of color as well as white students are gonna have an education that is less preparatory, less robust than we have even right now...
Hylton: And now that decades of her academic work have been dragged into partisan politics, she isn't shy about saying what she thinks the ultimate consequences will be.
Crenshaw: So, you've got vote suppression happening in one arena, you've got protest suppression happening in another arena, and you have idea suppression. It turns out that the same people that are bringing your vote suppression are bringing your idea suppression.
The same people that are trying to break our ability to protest are trying to break our ability to think. The same people are also lying about critical race theory and racial injustice. It's all part of grand lying for political purposes.
Hixenbaugh: We got in touch with Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who started the whole anti-CRT push last fall. In a written statement to us, he specifically rejected the idea that he wanted to make CRT a boogeyman, because he says he does see it as the driving ideology behind diversity and inclusion programs.
But he acknowledged that his goal was to turn critical race theory into a, quote, "national brand," giving American conservatives a new frame for understanding what's happening around them. He wrote that, "This makes it easier for conservatives to push back on anti-racism programs without getting into the details," providing, quote, "A central point of attack."
Hylton: This spring, CCAP opponent in Southlake appeared to pick up Rufo's strategy and run with it. And that put diversity plan supporters in a difficult spot. Now they were busy batting down the idea that critical race theory was lurking in the plan, while still expressing support for one of the central ideas that critical race theory is trying to advance, namely that systemic racism is real, and the best way to fight it is to pass corrective policies like the ones found in the CCAP.
Hixenbaugh: There's an old adage in politics. When you're explaining, you're losing. And diversity plan supporters were suddenly doing a lot of both. Opponents, meanwhile, were doing just what Rufo hoped they would do, going on the attack. And the consequences were about to get more serious. On April 5th, 2021, the Fox affiliate in Dallas broke news of a major escalation in the Southlake conflict.
Archival Recording: Two Carroll ISD board members in Southlake were arrested on a misdemeanor charge of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act...
Hixenbaugh: Criminal charges had been filed against School Board President Michelle Moore, and Vice President Todd Carlton, all stemming from Dragon mom Kristin Garcia's September 2020 civil lawsuit, accusing the board of breaking Texas's open meetings law.
Archival Recording: A parent and a political action committee against the diversity plan accused the board members of violating meeting rules...
Hixenbaugh: Tarrant County's Republican district attorney, Sharon Wilson, had gone to a grand jury with evidence first unearthed as part of the civil lawsuit that showed Moore and Carlton texting with other board members before the initial CCAP vote. Moore had sent group texts to two sets of board members outlining her plans for addressing the CCAP controversy at the start of the meeting. The grand jury agreed that was enough evidence to indict the two board members.
Hylton: The potential penalty for sending those text messages? Moore and Carlton were each facing up to six months behind bars. They were both booked at the county jail on April 5th, a day after Easter, and released that same day on a $500 bond.
Hixenbaugh: Carlton didn't respond to messages requesting comment, and Moore wasn't willing to do another interview with me. Her attorney released a statement dismissing the charges as political, and a quote, "Tremendous waste of resources."
Hylton: The charges against Moore and Carlton upset liberal residents and surprised some Texas Open Government experts. In Texas, it's rare for prosecutors to pursue criminal charges for Open Meetings Act violations.
Hixenbaugh: A spokeswoman for Wilson, the district attorney, said in a statement to NBC News that her office doesn't comment on pending cases, adding quote, "The Texas Open Meetings Act embodies the most basic values of democracy. Its requirements ensure that the citizens of Texas can stay informed about and participate in their local government."
Hylton: News of the charges traveled through Southlake at light speed, along with images of the school board leaders' mug shots.
Hixenbaugh: That night, just hours after getting out on bond, both Moore and Carlton showed up to lead the regular Monday night school board meeting. Nobody on the board mentioned to indictments, and neither did anyone affiliated with Southlake Families PAC.
Hylton: But when it was his turn to speak.
Maryland: Good evening.
Michelle Moore: Good evening.
Hylton: Russell Maryland wanted everyone to know that this whole thing had gone too far.
Maryland: Yesterday, while Christians around the world were celebrating Jesus's resurrection from the crucifixion, some Southlakers today are reveling in the crucifixions of its fellow citizens here in the district.
Hylton: Russell, who'd been leaning down to talk into the microphone, looked up to address district leaders directly.
Maryland: Michelle and Todd, you have my sympathies. Your families don't deserve this. Dr. Ledbetter, keep your arms moving, man, because if you let 'em stay still just for a moment, somebody will slap the handcuffs on you. Is this what Carroll ISD has become? Is this the excellence that we proclaim? This is us until we prove different.
Moore: Thank you.
Maryland: Thank you.
Hylton: After the indictments and attacks on Robin Cornish, and an earlier episode when conservatives dug up and publicized fraud allegations against one of the volunteer leaders of the district diversity council, a few of Southlake's more liberal residents decided it was time to do some digging of their own. And they discovered something about one of the most outspoken families on the other side.
Hixenbaugh: The Del Calvos, who were involved in Southlake Families PAC, and whose adult daughter, Kristin Garcia, filed the lawsuit that led to Moore and Carlton's indictments, it turns out that decades earlier in Florida, Garcia's mom, Kathy Del Calvo, had been sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution after pleading guilty to federal bank fraud.
Hylton: Kathy Del Calvo is someone you've heard speaking up at board meetings.
Kathy Del Calvo: My grandchildren are all minorities. Yes, all ten of them. They do not need to be treated special.
Hixenbaugh: After learning about her 1994 criminal conviction, a progressive group in town decided to make sure their neighbors learned about it too. Move Tarrant Forward, a political action committee formed after the initial diversity plan blow up, describes itself as, "A group of Southlake families that are countering fear and lies with fact-based information." Like a liberal version of Southlake Families PAC, but with about 1/20th the funding.
Hylton: In April, Move Tarrant Forward spent most of that money to send out a postcard-sized political mailer. It showed cartoon images of four clowns putting on a show at the circus, above the words, "Southlake Fam-Lies PAC Leaders." The top of the mailer reads, "Why follow these clowns anywhere?"
Each clown has a little speech bubble. Next to the clown labeled "Kathy Del Calvo," it says, "I've been convicted of federal bank fraud." Next to Kristin Garcia, "Look Mommy, I sue schools." The flier also names two other female leaders of Southlake Families PAC, with comments about how their kids don't attend the district.
Hixenbaugh: We reached out to members of the Del Calvo family to request interviews, but only Leo Del Calvo, Kathy's husband, responded. In a written message he said his wife's criminal history had no bearing on the diversity plan debate in Southlake, and that by meaning it in our reporting, NBC News is, quote, "No better than the scumbag libs that put this out there," unquote.
Conservatives in town were outraged that neighbors would dig up someone's decades old mistakes in an attempt to disparage them and their beliefs about how the school system should be run. Here's how Guy Midkiff, who devoted a podcast episode to Robin Cornish's finances, covered the Move Tarrant Forward mailer.
Midkiff: These four women are pillars in our community that I have the utmost respect for. And yet they sent out mailers to 8,000 frickin' families in our community, talking about the imperfections in their life. Well, I would like to take that same magnifying glass and point it on them for one second and find how many imperfections I could find in them. I just find it disgusting what they're doing...
Hixenbaugh: In a statement to NBC News, Bjorn Bennett, one of the leaders of Move Tarrant Forward, defended the clown mailer. He said the goal was to show that the conservative backlash to the diversity plan was being led by partisan activists in town and wasn't really about what's best for Carroll students.
The flier wasn't the end of the personal attacks. Months later, several diversity plan supporters reported Midkiff to his day job employer, American Airlines, saying that he'd been harassing members of the community in person and on his podcast.
The airline responded by issuing a public statement. Quote, "We are troubled by the allegations made and have launched an investigation into the matter." Midkiff fired back in social media posts, arguing that his accusers were using quote, "Bully tactics," to silence him.
In response to questions from NBC News, an American Airlines spokeswoman said, quote, "All investigations are private between the company and its employee, so we can't comment further." She noted that the company takes harassment allegations seriously, but said airline employees are free to express their own opinions.
Hylton: Despite the growing bitterness in town, until this spring, NBC was still the only major national outlet covering the story. But that was about to change.
Carlson: Well, until recently the Carroll Independent School District of Southlake, Texas, was one of the highest performing school districts in the state of Texas...
Hixenbaugh: A couple months after Antonia and I reported on Southlake, Fox News host Tucker Carlson did a segment of his own.
Carlson: But beginning in 2018, the school district implemented something called a cultural competence plan. Maybe you've heard about that at your kids' school...
Hixenbaugh: To help his viewers understand what was happening in Southlake, Carlson interviewed Dana Loesch, a former NRA spokeswoman, popular conservative commentator, and it turns out, Southlake resident.
Carlson: Dana, thanks so much for coming on.
Dana Loesch: This didn't begin out of academic curiosity. This began because some teenagers said something bad, and apparently, we use someone's worst moments in life to completely slight their entire life. And the school and a lot of very far left, Marxist activists decided to exploit this as a way to implement critical race theory education in this school district. And SouthlakeFamilies.org is how they're pushin' back.
Carlson: Amen. This is happening everywhere. They'll come in and they'll wreck your school, they'll hurt your children, they'll take your money, they'll bully you, and no one does anything. And I'm just so grateful to hear of parents who are doing something. Dana, thanks so much for coming on today and telling us that story.
Loesch: Thank you, Tucker.
Hixenbaugh: "They'll come in, they'll wreck your school, they'll hurt your children, they'll take your money."
Hylton: Carlson dropped that warning to nearly three million nightly viewers, and Loesch gave them a way to fight back, by sharing the link to Southlake Families PAC. Now, anyone wanting to defend Loesch's suburb from the woke invasion was just one click away from donating to troops on the front line, and donate they did.
Hixenbaugh: That night, a retiree in Hilton Head, South Carolina, gave Southlake Families PAC $500. A real estate developer in Skillman, New Jersey, sent $25. A stay-at-home dad in central Ohio chipped in another $10. Donations large and small poured in from all over the country.
Hylton: And now, with two seats coming open on the Carroll School Board, all that money was about to start talking.
Hixenbaugh: That's next time on Southlake.
Hylton: From NBC News, this is the fourth of six episodes of Southlake, a story about belonging and backlash in an American suburb. If you like what you've heard, please give us a five-star rating and a 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, Antonia Hylton.
Hixenbaugh: And by me, Mike Hixenbaugh. 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 and Sharif Youssef. 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. Special thanks to Sarah Burke and our partners at Sky News.