Southlake: episode 2
Just a Word
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. October 20th, 2018, the dance floor at the Hilton in Southlake's Town Square was packed. In a video the DJ later posted to his Instagram, you can hear hundreds of kids shouting along to the Drake song God's Plan.
Crowd: (IN PRORGRESS) --I'm sorry. "Fifty Dub," I even got it tatted on me. Eighty-one, they'll bring the crashers to the party...
Hylton: It was Carroll High School's homecoming dance. Girls in designer dresses, sweaty boys in half unbuttoned dress shirts, all of them crowded up around the stage, hands in the air under flashing lights shouting every lyric as the DJ stood behind turntables.
But what was supposed to be a night to remember for a bunch of teenagers would instead mark the beginning of Southlake's racial reckoning. Raven Rolle, a Black senior, came ready to have a good night with her girls, snapping pics in a red long-sleeved dress and gold heels. But she says things quickly got uncomfortable as the DJ, a Black man, turned on one of the most popular songs from 2018.
Raven Rolle: That was the year that Mo Bamba came out, which.
Sheck Wes: I be ballin' like my brother Mo. Sheck Wes...
Hylton: Mo Bamba by Sheck Wes. How do I explain the impact of that song? It was to kids Raven's age what Hot N-Word by Bobby Shmurda was in 2014 or No Hands by Waka Flocka was in 2010. In other words, an unmistakably Black song that a certain group of young white people absolutely lose their minds to. And that's what happened in the ballroom that night.
Rolle: The DJ, I think he was playing the clean versions of all the songs. I think you have to do that at school dances.
Hylton: You know where this is going. The unedited version includes a whole bunch of words that administrators wouldn't want students screaming at an official school function. Most importantly, the N-word. In the clean version of Mo Bamba that played that night, the word "brother" is dubbed in for the N-word.
Rolle: But I specifically, like, remember pointing out with my friends, like, "Listen to all these white people using the N-word in all these songs."
Mike Hixenbaugh: We spoke to a half dozen students who remember the same thing all through the night. A room full of mostly white students, many of them singing the N-word and other explicit lyrics over censored versions of songs.
Jack Tucker: It was, like, extremely uncomfortable, is the best way to describe it for-- for me, at least, and I'm sure for that DJ. I can't even imagine.
Hixenbaugh: That's Jack Tucker, a white senior and student body president that year. He helped plan the dance.
Tucker: You just hear a horde of white, privileged teenagers, you just hear the N-word. And you can't, like, single it out, 'cause it's everyone.
Hixenbaugh: If you ask around, Carroll students will probably tell you what Jack told us. Hearing the N-word on the dance floor wasn't all that surprising. In fact, you could hear white students using it at most Carroll dances and even more often in the halls of the high school. As one district leader would later tell us, teachers and administrators in Southlake had gotten used to dealing with these types of issues on a case-by-case basis and doing it quietly.
Hylton: But there was no way of quietly dealing with what happened after the dance that night.
Hixenbaugh: That evening, a group of Carroll students, white students, mostly underclassmen, headed to a friend's house for a homecoming afterparty. And at some point, eight of them gathered around a cell phone and recorded themselves gleefully chanting the same word that so many Carroll kids had been shouting from the dance floor.
Hylton: Only this time, they weren't repeating a lyric, and now the world was about to hear firsthand what Black students had been hearing for years at Southlake's Carroll High. From NBC News, I'm Antonia Hylton.
Hixenbaugh: I'm Mike Hixenbaugh.
Hylton: And this is Southlake.
Hixenbaugh: Chapter Two: Just a Word. A day after homecoming in 2018, lots of people in Southlake were already talking about the video filmed at an afterparty. The clip is kind of grainy, but you can make out faces. It shows a bunch of white students piled up together on a bed.
Hylton: One girl shouts, "I say N**, you say--"
Female Student: (IN PROGRESS) --say "g**." N**.
Student Voices: G**.
Student Voices: G**.
Female Student: N**.
Student Voices: G**.
Female Student: Eh, we up on that Black shit, eh? (LAUGHTER)
Hylton: It's kind of hard to hear that bit at the end, but it sounds like the girl is saying, "We up on that Black stuff, eh?"
Female Student: We up on that Black shit, eh? (LAUGHTER)
Hixenbaugh: We are not naming the students who appeared in the video, all of whom were minors at the time. We did try to reach all of them through social media and calls to whatever numbers we could find for them. But none of them responded, and as far as we can tell, none of them have commented publicly.
Hylton: The students probably didn't mean for the world to see this clip. Initially, they only shared it with friends on Snapchat. But one of them must have made a copy before it disappeared, because soon it showed up on Twitter. You remember what happened next.
Archival Recording: Controversy in Southlake tonight after teens posted a racist video online.
Archival Recording: She continued until the pencil lead broke into his skin.
Archival Recording: You've got to change this curriculum. You've got to change the tone in this town.
Hixenbaugh: There are hours of public videotaped testimony from parents reacting to the video. But figuring out what was going on inside the school took a little more legwork. (PHONE)
Liv Ferguson: Hello?
Hixenbaugh: Hi, Liv?
Ferguson: Hi, yes.
Hixenbaugh, Recording: Hey, this is Mike Hixenbaugh. How are you doin'?
Hixenbaugh: The district wouldn't let us just roam the halls to talk with students, so we spent a lot of time on the phone.
Hixenbaugh, Recording: Hey, thanks for takin' time to talk with me. I'm not sure, what did Raven share with you--
Hixenbaugh: Liv Ferguson was a sophomore that year, just like most of the kids in the video.
Ferguson: That was just the only thing that people were talking about.
Hixenbaugh: To give you a sense of scale, there are about 700 students in each graduating class at Carroll. And Liv was one of only about 20 Black students in her grade, a pretty small group. So, after the N-word video, she remembers getting lots of stares and comments from people wondering how she and the other Black students were going to react.
Ferguson: Teachers in class, you know, obviously try to be, like, "Let's focus on this," and, you know, won't allow people to talk about it. But that didn't really do anything.
Hixenbaugh: Students like Liv, of course, knew who made the video, and as it happened, she was actually pretty good friends with one of the girls in it. She says she remembers confronting the girl that week, first over text message, then at school.
Ferguson: And I was, like, "I've seen this video," like, you know, "what the heck is wrong with you?" Like, and she at first was, like, "That's not me in the video. Like, I don't know what you're talking about." And then eventually me just continuously being, like, "I know it's you, I know it's you," she's, like, "Yeah, it's me." Then she profusely apologized, but it was, just a really, just a difficult conversation to have, especially with someone who you would consider a friend.
Hixenbaugh: Liv also had a Spanish class with three other girls in the video.
Ferguson: (IN PROGRESS) --like, the kids who were in that video--
Hixenbaugh: She remembers the day they all returned to school after the three-day suspensions that Carroll administrators had dished out.
Ferguson: And so, they had missed a quiz.
Hixenbaugh: They'd all missed a pop quiz while they were gone, Liv says.
Ferguson: And then I remember my teacher, she was, like, "Oh, I'll just put in hundreds for you guys, don't even worry about the quiz."
Hixenbaugh: After overhearing the comment, Liv says she felt her head spin. She remembers getting up from her seat and hurrying down the hall to the bathroom, then stepping into a stall to cry.
Hixenbaugh, Recording: Did you--
Hixenbaugh: We contacted school administrators to try to confirm the story, but they said district leadership had changed since 2018, and they couldn't comment.
Ferguson: I just didn't want just to have to make a scene in the middle of class. I was just, like, you know, my teacher has a Black person in the class, and then in front of everyone she's gonna tell the girls who were in trouble for saying a racial slur that they can get a free 100 on their quiz that they missed because they were suspended. I was, like, "This is total crap."
Hixenbaugh: The unease that students like Liv were feeling wasn't just about how individual teachers were handling things. It was also about the expectations that the district had put down in writing for students and staff. Back in 2018, there weren't explicit rules in Carroll student code of conduct dealing with the use of racial slurs at the high school. In fact, any bullying based on race could be treated by teachers as a lowest-level offense in the student handbook, on par with chewing gum in class or spitting.
Hylton: Outside the school's walls, town leaders were going to great lengths to show that Southlake was going to learn from the uncomfortable truth the N-word video exposed, hosting events where the community could come together, mostly over beverages. First, there was coffee and conversation with school board members, Mayor Laura Hill, and dozens of Southlake moms.
Laura Hill: Racism exists. Racism exists, and we have to name it. We have to give it a name so that we can fight it. (APPLAUSE) So--
Hylton: Two weeks later, there was Brews with Dads at a local pub called The Ginger Man. Our Dallas NBC affiliate captured their attempt to bridge the racial divide.
Archival Recording: With a beer in one hand and the other ready for a shake. "Hey, what's up my man?" The dads of Southlake are tackling a thorny issue head on.
John Huffman: Racism is real, it's around us, and sweeping it under the rug is not gonna help.
Hylton: That was John Huffman, a conservative member of Southlake City Council who would later run for mayor. And he wasn't the only white city official speaking out.
Hixenbaugh: In December 2018, a month after the N-word video, the city cut a video of its own promoting Mayor Hill's efforts to respond to it.
Archival Recording: Racism. Discrimination. Intolerance. Exclusion. These things don't have a place in Southlake.
Hixenbaugh: In the video shared on the city's social media feeds, Mayor Hill stands in front of a blank white canvas alongside seven female students of color and one white boy.
Archival Recording: The time is now to challenge perceptions.
Hixenbaugh: Hill says she's been talking with these students about their ideas for creating meaningful change in Southlake.
Hill: The ideas will take work, but we can do it with everyone's help. That's why the city is creating a team of people--
Hixenbaugh: As Hill lays out plans for a new initiative to promote dialogue, images flash across the screen showing the range of cultures that call Southlake home.
Hill: (IN PROGRESS) --to make Southlake the best it can be for everyone--
Hixenbaugh: There's Mayor Hill in a green sari, snapping a selfie with children at the city's Diwali festival. There's Robin Cornish posing with her dad at Frank's Park. There's a group of white men in suits bowing their heads in prayer.
Hill: Creating meaningful change is not a short-term effort, and it starts with you and me. I can't wait to see what happens next.
Archival Recording: I believe in Southlake. I believe in Southlake. I believe in Southlake. I believe in Southlake. We believe in Southlake.
Hixenbaugh: And then it seems like all that talk started to translate into action.
Russell Maryland: Welcome. Welcome to my home.
Archival Recording: Should we take our shoes off?
Archival Recording: You sure?
Maryland: Come on now.
Hixenbaugh: That's Russell Maryland, the number one pick in the 1991 NFL draft and a starting defensive lineman on all those Cowboys Super Bowl teams.
Maryland: I wasn't a great athlete. (LAUGH) I wasn't even expected to be the number one pick, but the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys said, "You know what? I don't care about all that other stuff, I need Russell Maryland on my team, because I know he can plug up some holes."
Archival Recording: (IN PROGRESS) --O'Donnell was hit. Returning the favor, Russell Maryland. Oh my, this big guy, the number one pick--
Hylton: Russell was Frank Cornish's roommate during Cowboys road games and one of the Black teammates who followed Frank out to Southlake. And although he and his wife fell in love with the town, he says their kids also started hearing racial slurs when they were old enough to go to school. So, he wasn't shocked by the video of Carroll kids yelling the N-word.
Hixenbaugh: He was surprised to get a call afterward from Matt Bryant, a Carroll school board member and fellow Dragon parent.
Maryland: He calls me a couple times to say, "Hey, we need to meet." Our sons at the time were playin' football together. He says, "We need to meet. Now we're formin' an advisory committee based on the video."
Hixenbaugh: A few days later, they met at a Starbucks tucked inside a Tom Thumb grocery store.
Maryland: With tears in his eyes, he said, "Russell, I can't imagine that my son would have a different experience in this school district than your son."
Hixenbaugh: We tried reaching Bryant, but he didn't respond to our messages.
Hylton: Russell says Bryant told him over coffee that day, "Look, you're well-respected in the community. The school board is planning to put together a diversity council to tackle this problem, and we want you to lend your name and credibility to the cause."
Maryland: Anything to protect our kids, I'm all on board, and I was on board. I applied, and I was chosen, one of 63 members of the initial district diversity council here in Southlake.
Hixenbaugh: That group of community volunteers, Carroll's district diversity council, had its first meeting a few weeks later in early 2019. Russell was impressed when he walked in the room.
Maryland: We had Black people, we had white residents, we had Hispanic, Asian and South Asian, and we thought we knew that we could do a good job at that first meeting in order to advance some positive change here in the city.
Hylton: Nikki Olaleye, a Black Carroll student who was then a sophomore, was one of the faces in the crowd. An administrator had sought her out in the hallway one day.
Nikki Olaleye: He was, like, "Oh, I'd like for you to join the district diversity council." And so I was, like, "Okay." I didn't actually apply to it. I just kind of got enlisted really.
Hylton: Nikki, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants had moved to Southlake with her mother and older brother the summer before her freshman year. Coming from a predominantly white but much more progressive school district in the San Francisco Bay area, Nikki describes her early years at Carroll like a shock to her system.
Olaleye: It was intense. It was lonely for a long time.
Hylton: She didn't feel welcome at the school, and she couldn't help feeling like that was tied to her race. So, she was excited about the chance to help make a difference. What she remembers once she joined the district diversity council was a group of well-meaning, mostly friendly people who were trying to improve Carroll. But there were some early signs that perhaps they weren't exactly experts in the careful and conscious practice of diversity and inclusion.
Olaleye: And I don't know if I'm necessarily supposed to say this, but I didn't sign anything. They basically took us into a room that had a bunch of racial slurs on the walls, and we were supposed to, and I kinda cringe saying this, but they made us rank them from how bad they were to how, like, not bad they were.
Hylton: The goal of the exercise as Nikki understood it was to help administrators think about which slurs deserve the most serious consequences. But in practice.
Olaleye: Oh, my goodness. It was crazy. Let me tell you. One of my friends who's, like, Caucasian but she's also, like, bisexual, imagine her and an older white lady arguing over if the F-slur was a bad slur. 'Cause she didn't think that it was, and then the lady kept moving it back. She was, like, "Stop." And (LAUGH) oh, it was a lot. We're kinda, we were all just, like, "Okay. Like, if you think this is best."
Hixenbaugh: We talked with one of the white adults who was helping lead the diversity council, and she confirmed Nikki's story, and that the exercise was really awkward. But she said that was kind of the point of the committee, to have difficult conversations about race and to come up with solutions. The diversity council had barely gotten a chance to work through those early icebreakers when in February 2019, another N-word video made the news.
Archival Recording: Now to a pattern of hate. For the second time in months, students in Southlake ISD are caught on video repeating the N-word.
Hixenbaugh: This one showed a car full of white students, who according to a local news report were singing along to an explicit song. Once again, Southlake leaders scrambled to respond. Mayor Laura Hill wrote a post on Facebook afterward telling parents they needed to "wake the heck up." Then she shared that message with a reporter from WFAA, the Dallas ABC affiliate.
Hill: While I understand young people do dumb things, they make a decision to do those dumb things and post them on social media.
Archival Recording: Adding that parents have to help the district teach their kids right from wrong.
Hixenbaugh: A familiar pattern followed. First came disgust and shock. Then came optimism that the community could solve this. Some Black Carroll students though say they were beginning to doubt whether anything was actually going to change, because the ugliness showing up in these videos, that was just a small taste of what they say they were experiencing at school.
Hylton: Raven Rolle was one of the Carroll kids who'd begun to doubt whether all that soul searching in Southlake would lead to real changes. (DOG BARKS) Raven and her family moved to Southlake from Los Angeles in 2006 when she was five. She's the one who remembered little girls on the playground telling her they couldn't play with her because her skin was brown.
Hylton: Hi, how are you?
Rolle: Good, how are you?
Hylton: Good, thanks. Thanks for having us, Raven.
Rolle: Of course.
Hylton: Seems that Carroll didn't seem to improve as Raven got older. She says she first noticed rampant use of the N-word in hallways around the seventh grade.
Rolle: It's usually, like, people are, like, "Well, I'm not using it in a bad way. Like, I'm saying you're my friend or whatever." But, like, kids will just walk up to anyone and use that word. Like, they're extremely comfortable with it. And then sometimes there are situations when it's, they're doing it to hurt your feelings.
Hylton: And Raven says kids continued to use the N-word at school even after those two viral videos came out.
Hixenbaugh: Because while the videos may have embarrassed a lot of adults in Southlake, some white students at Carroll saw the whole thing as evidence of a different kind of injustice. Basically, that if Black people can say the N-word, especially the pronunciation that you hear in rap songs, why were white students being punished for it? In March of 2019, just a couple weeks after the second N-word video, Raven says she was sitting in math class when she overheard one of her white classmates saying the N-word while making that very argument. She didn't even bother confronting him.
Rolle: Since I was a senior and I had already reported so many incidents of racism, I was, like, I told my teacher, I was, like, "I'm just gonna go report this really quick. I'll be back, you know, one second."
Hylton: Eventually, Raven's complaint reached principal, Shawn Duhon. Duhon, who's white, had been principal at Carroll Senior High since 2012, and this wasn't the first time he'd had to deal with a report of kids using racial slurs at school. This time he called both Raven and the white student who we are not naming down to his office. That's when Raven secretly hit record on her cell phone.
Shawn Duhon: Come on in, have a seat.
Male Student: Yes sir.
Hylton: Under Texas law, you're not required to notify someone when you're recording them. At first, the boy denied using the N-word. He said he was just having a conversation with other students about why it's racist that only Black people are allowed to say it. Raven, 17 at the time, grilled him.
Male Student: (IN PROGRESS) --but it was that.
Rolle: Right. So how, if that's your opinion on the word.
Male Student: No, but I don't use it.
Rolle: No, no, let me finish. If that's your opinion on the word, which you did use in the sentence when you were explaining it, then why would you lie about saying it today?
Male Student: Well, 'cause I don't, that's not, like, in my vocabulary--
Rolle: You do use the word though. It is in your vocabulary, 'cause I've heard you say it multiple times.
Male Student: Oh, well, I disagree but.
Rolle: It's not a disagree. It's not, you can't disagree. You said it. It's a fact.
Male Student: I mean, maybe during that conversation, but not in the way that you're saying--
Rolle: You said it during the conversation, and I've heard you say it multiple times outside of that conversation.
Male Student: Well, I don't recall saying it outside--
Rolle: So how are you gonna look at me in my face and tell me that you didn't do that? Are you callin' me crazy or something--
Male Student: 'Cause no, I literally do not recall saying that--
Rolle: You no, okay, you don't recall what happened?
Duhon: Okay, so whether we said it today or not, or whether we said it a week ago or not.
Male Student: No, I, and that--
Hylton: We reached out to Duhon and the student who's now an adult, but they both declined to comment. Raven says she expected Principal Duhon to help the student understand why hearing white people say the N-word is so painful for Black people. Instead, he gave examples of other things you shouldn't say at school.
Duhon: I don't want those type, and I mean, it doesn't matter if it's, and excuse me if I'm using these words, gay, homo, any, it doesn't matter what the word is. Those types of words are not safe for this educational setting.
Hylton: He goes on.
Duhon: But when it involves hateful, derogatory, demeaning context, somebody's gotta step up and squash it. Somebody's gotta say, "No, we're not talkin' about this. No, we're not gonna tolerate this."
Male Student: Yes sir.
Hylton: The boy explains that he knows kids at Carroll who use the N-word, but why should it be his job to police what his friends say? Duhon responds by suggesting that in the future, the student should ask his friends not to say the word around him, just like Duhon does when he hears people say the GD-word, "Goddamn."
Duhon: I don't tolerate, I can't stand that word, I don't accept that word, I don't tolerate it. And I'm gonna tell 'em, "Hey guys, I don't like that. I appreciate it if you wouldn't say it." Right, 'cause I think it's totally disrespectful--
Male Student: Well, isn't there an option to where you just don't use that word, and you don't tell somebody else what they can and can't say?
Hylton: Raven didn't say it in the meeting, but to her, Duhon comparing the N-word to goddamn was insulting.
Rolle: This happens way too often in school. Am I supposed to get up and leave every time I heard someone say that?
Male Student: Well, to me, it's just--
Duhon: That is correct, you should, and that's why we're trying to work through this and educate, because this has gotta be a safe place for learning. Because she's entitled to a classroom and to a seat in that class just like everybody else. So, she shouldn't have to get up and leave.
Male Student: Well, to me, it's just a word, so it doesn't offend me.
Rolle: It's not just a word. Don't even say that.
Male Student: Yeah.
Rolle: Do you know what that means? How are you gonna look at me in my face--
Duhon: Hold on, Raven.
Rolle: --and tell me that that is just a word? Do you know how disrespectful that is?
Male Student: To me, it's just a word--
Rolle: No, it's not just a word.
Male Student: Yeah, it's not.
Rolle: That is a racial slur. I can't even believe you would just say that to me.
Rolle: I'm not gonna calm down.
Duhon: Oh, just relax.
Rolle: I cannot deal with this ignorance.
Duhon: Just relax.
Male Student: There's no words that offend me.
Rolle: 'Cause you're white.
Male Student: What does that have to do with anything--
Rolle: That's why. I'm Black, and I have to go to school in this white school and listen to y'all say that, and you're gonna tell me it's just a word?
Male Student: I, it doesn't.
Rolle: It's not just a word. (DOOR)
Duhon: Have a seat out there for me for a second.
Male Student: Sure.
Duhon: Thank you.
Hylton: Alone with Raven after sending the boy away, Duhon at first tries to comfort her.
Duhon: So, you see the word ignorance, you said it. That's what we're dealin' with. I'm not sure Raven, I'm not sure if that kid’ll ever change.
Rolle: He's not going to.
Hylton: And then Duhon gives Raven advice on how to keep herself out of trouble during the final few months of her senior year.
Duhon: When you see ignorance like that, you can't let them take your joy, girl. You can't. You're too good of a girl, you're too good of a person for somebody like that.
Rolle: I try. That's why I didn't say anything the first few times.
Duhon: Well, no. You're too pretty, you're too nice, everything you got goin' on for you, you can't let somebody like that take your joy, right, take your peace.
Hylton: After a few more minutes of this, Duhon says he'll keep thinking about how to handle the situation and offers a partial solution. To rearrange Raven's schedule so she won't be in a class with the boy. (TAPS)
Duhon: Let me walk you out.
Hylton: Raven is now two years into college, but when seated in front of me and Mike in her mom's living room in Southlake, she was still visibly upset after relistening to the recording. It sounded to her like Principal Duhon's approach centered on controlling her reactions, rather than what the school was going to do to protect students like her. The school is prohibited by law from commenting on specific student discipline matters, so Raven still has no idea whether the boy faced any punishment.
Rolle: And so, I think I was just kinda drained and ready to leave, but I wish I would have sat there and, like, demanded right then and there, "You need to do something now. I'm not waiting." 'Cause I know it's not my fault, and there's really nothing else I could have done.
But I feel like I shoulda just told him that I expect more. I can't just get over things like that, and it seems like Duhon, and the boy are over it. They can just move on, and I just don't think that's fair. Like, I should've put more pressure on him I think to do something.
Hylton: Black residents repeatedly described to us feeling exactly what Raven felt, like these aggressions would happen, and then they would get brushed under the rug as though they were one-off, meaningless incidents not indicative of the larger culture, not worth escalation or action. And then years down the line, those same Black students and parents would find themselves still ruminating over what happened, their confidence still shaken by interactions they're sure their white counterparts hardly recall.
Rolle: I'm an adult now, and I'm still talking about something that happened to me three years ago. Just not fair.
Hylton: That deep sense of unfairness is one of the main reasons that families of color wanted the school district to step in with a formal plan to make Carroll more inclusive.
Hixenbaugh: Over the next year, the district diversity council continued to meet each month, mapping out a framework to change the culture at Carroll and to come up with new rules to protect kids like Raven. And finally, by early 2020, the district was almost ready to make that plan public.
But that's when the coronavirus hit, and suddenly Carroll and every school district in America had more urgent matters to address. Now nearly every parent of every Dragon at every grade level was paying attention to what the school board was doing as it tried to sort out virtual school days and mask policies. And then.
Crowd: (CHANTS) Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter. No justice, no peace, no racist beliefs, no justice no peace, no racist beliefs.
Hixenbaugh: Up until that point, the school district had been on track to deliver on its promise to address racism.
Maryland: But then, in my opinion, what really threw us off the rails was George Floyd. George Floyd happened, his murder. Everything took a turn in America.
Hylton: In the days after George Floyd's murder, Nikki Olaleye watched protests for racial justice break out in big cities and small towns across America, and thought, "Well, why not in Southlake?" So, she called up a few friends.
Olaleye: I was, like, "I mean, we should do this, we should put on a protest." And they were, like, "You might be crazy, but okay. Like, let's do it." And so, we agreed, and I immediately hopped on my computer, and I made the flyer that everybody, you know, like, spread around during that summer.
Hixenbaugh: But by the time Nikki hit publish on May 31st, 2020, on a Facebook post announcing the rally, the national conversation had already begun to shift. President Trump, pointing to scenes of broken store windows and looting in some major cities had started referring to Black Lives Matter protesters as "thugs," and warning state and local officials that if they didn't step up, violent leftwing rioters would soon be invading their suburbs.
Donald Trump: In recent days, our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others.
Hixenbaugh: It wasn't long before that message trickled down to Southlake. As Nikki's protest flyer spread on social media, so did scary rumors warning that the protest could turn violent. One Southlake man wrote on Facebook that residents should be prepared to quote, "exercise their second amendment rights." Commenting on that same post, the wife of Southlake's former mayor wrote of any rioters that might come to town, "sadly they need to die." She didn't respond to messages requesting an interview.
Hylton: Robin Cornish noticed the hysteria building online.
Robin Cornish: They were goin' by what they saw on TV. They were going by the narrative that Donald Trump was spinning on TV.
Hylton: This was a much different response than the outpouring she saw after Frank's plaque was vandalized.
Cornish: They were assuming, "They're coming here, they're coming to get us."
Hixenbaugh: That fear had also reached Southlake's mayor, Laura Hill. More than a year after recording that promotional video promising to confront racism in Southlake, Hill released a statement suggesting that Nikki's Black Lives Matter rally was not the way to do it. Hill said, "Holding the protest at Town Square near so many businesses was a mistake." And warned that some "bad people might come from out of town to cause destruction."
Hylton: She wrote on Facebook, "Yes, we will take every precaution within our ability, but our families want guarantees that their children will be safe. There are none."
Hixenbaugh: We reached out to Mayor Hill for an interview, but she declined. With days to go until the June 6th protest and tensions growing hotter, Hill texted Robin for help. They'd gotten to know each other when the city rededicated the Town Square Park to Frank. Hill wanted to know, "Would Robin ask Nikki and the other students not to hold the protest?" Robin texted back.
Cornish: "In my heart, I just don't see it becoming violent on Saturday."
Hixenbaugh: Hill replied.
Cornish: "From your lips to God's ears, it's over for me if anyone gets hurt."
Crowd: (CHANT) Black Lives Matter.
Hixenbaugh: Protest day arrived. Shops in Town Square had boarded up their windows like businesses were doing in downtowns across the country. As city leaders held their breath, Robin, Russell and Raven and their families all came out to Town Square that afternoon, along with hundreds of others.
Olaleye: Absolutely nothing went wrong. It was not violent. It was extremely peaceful. And we ended up having an attendance of over a thousand people of, like, all ages, races and nationalities from all over the place, not just Southlake.
Hylton: And it wasn't just the national fight for racial justice that drew them out. This was also about the fight right here in Southlake. At one point, while standing under a gazebo overlooking the crowd, Nikki grabbed the bullhorn.
Olaleye: My concern lies with the future generation. I don't want them to have to go through a school system that will strip them of their identity or make them feel less than their full potential.
Archival Recording: Yes.
Olaleye: We fight so that our children won't have to feel the same way we do now: unsafe and unheard.
Hylton: Toward the end of the rally, Mayor Hill stepped forward and addressed the crowd that she'd discouraged from coming. Shouting into the bullhorn, she told everyone to turn their anger into meaningful action.
Hill: Real change. You must challenge yourself. You must get off the keyboard and take a seat at the table. Real change at the table.
Olaleye: Why did you discourage us from coming then?
Hixenbaugh: For Nikki and her friends, the protest was a huge affirming win. People came out, and as for Mayor Hill's call to get up from behind their keyboards, they were definitely on board with that.
Hylton: That summer, dozens of Carroll students and recent graduates got together to form a group called the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition of SARC. Nikki and Raven were among the first to join, and the group got to work collecting hundreds of student testimonials revealing claims of racism, homophobia, and ableism at Carroll.
Hixenbaugh: Then on July 20th, several SARC members read their own stories and the accounts of fellow students at a virtual school board meeting. Warning, you're about to hear offensive language.
Olaleye: I was called a terrorist and told to leave the country, and that I didn't belong here. "Go back to your terrorist country," he said.
Male Student: You have no idea what it's like to be called a C***k or a F*g by peers. While I along with the rest of my peers talk, you will listen. You will get a taste of a life like mine at Carroll.
Female Student: In seventh grade, during my first year of school in the U.S., two kids called me a Beaner and told me to go back to my country. My teacher heard. She did nothing. That same year, I received a lunch detention for speaking Spanish.
Female Student: I turned eight, and I was asked, "Are you Black?" And I said, "Yes," and from then on, everything was different. Sometimes I was called the N-word, "ape monkey." And it's not all the time, but just enough.
Hylton: That same month, SARC put out a list of demands, changes they wanted the school district to implement right away. Russell Maryland, the ex-Cowboy who'd agreed to help out with the diversity council knew the kids had criticisms of the committee and how long it was taking to get anything done.
Maryland: As you know, with young people, they want change quickly. They don't wait, they don't want to wait. And their first demand was, they want Carroll ISD to exclaim loud and proud that Black Lives Matter. And I'm, like, "Whoa." (LAUGH) I'm, like, "These kids ain't playin'."
Hylton: And that wasn't the most ambitious demand on SARC's list. They also called on Carroll to get rid of uniform school resource officers and replace them with therapists and social workers, basically defund the police.
Maryland: Well, you know, that was something that I didn't agree with, but that was their plan. And so, when you say that, when you say "defund the police" in this conservative area, then you know that's gonna cause some problems.
Hixenbaugh: Russell was right. It did cause problems. That summer, the pandemic, the nation's racial reckoning, the Black Lives Matter rally at Town Square, they all converged into a perfect political storm. To many conservatives, it seemed that a radical, leftwing insurgency had infiltrated idyllic Southlake. And that was all before they learned what the school district had in mind for their children.
Hylton: On July 23rd, 2020, the diversity council finally unveiled its proposal, a 34-page document calling for new lessons to teach kids how to treat everyone with respect and new rules to discipline the ones who refused to learn. The much-anticipated cultural competence action plan released to the public in the middle of the most politically volatile summer in Southlake's history.
Hixenbaugh: The plan was meant to make kids like Raven Rolle and Nikki feel safe and heard. Instead, it awakened an opposition movement more intense and more effective than anyone could have imagined.
Hylton: That's next time on Southlake. From NBC News, this is the second 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. 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.