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Transcript: Protect the Tradition

The full episode transcript for Protect the Tradition


Southlake: episode 6

Protect the Tradition

Mike Hixenbaugh: (CROWD NOISES) It's Saturday morning, May 1st, 2021. Election day in Southlake, Texas. (HORNS) (CHEERS) There's never been a local election here quite like this one. Two warring factions are set up on opposite sides of city hall at Town Square as a stream of voters arrive to cast ballots. (CHEERS) On one side, a small group of volunteers hold signs in support of candidates who've campaigned on a promise to support new diversity and inclusion programs at the Carroll Independent School District.

Antonia Hylton: On the other side, (HORNS) (CHEERS) a much larger, rowdier group has gathered to cheer on the slate of conservative candidates backed by Southlake Families PAC. (CHEER) They're waving huge, Dragon-green campaign signs for school board candidates Hannah Smith and Cam Bryan and yelling for passing drivers to honk their horns in support. (HONKING) (CHEERING)

Hixenbaugh: On a corner in between them--

Hylton On Scene: Hi, there. Are you a Southlake voter?

Hixenbaugh: --Antonia and I are standing outside the polling entrance--

Hylton On Scene: Would you open to sharing a little bit about what brought you out for this election?

Hixenbaugh: --trying to talk to voters. For months, parents in this town have been fighting about Carroll's Cultural Competence Action Plan, the CCAP. We've come to see if all that noise has actually changed minds among regular voters, the kinds of folks who don't have time to show up at school board meetings week after week.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Excuse me. Are you all Southlake voters?

Male Voter: We are.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Would you mind-- we're just recording a story. Would you mind sharing some of your thoughts on the election--

Hylton On Scene: A few words about what brought you out?

Male Voter: No. Thank you, though.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Okay. Thanks.

Hylton: Most folks aren't interested in talking to us, which isn't exactly unusual.

Hylton On Scene: Would you be open to say a few words about what brought you out?

Female Voter: No, thank you.

Hylton On Scene: No problem.

Hylton: And while we can't say for sure why so many Dragon voters were blowing past us, it probably didn't help that Southlake's conservative podcast host, Guy Midkiff, had put out an episode that week letting people know we were coming to town and giving this warning to any diversity plan opponents who were thinking about talking to us.

Guy Midkiff: They're gonna make you look like a white Conehead, you know, Ku Klux Klan member. They're not gonna make you look good.

Hylton On Scene: Hi, there. Are you guys voters here in Southlake?

Hixenbaugh: Outside town hall, Antonia calls out to an older white couple as they approach the voting entrance.

Female Voter: Yes, we are.

Hylton On Scene: Would you like to share any of your thoughts about why you're voting?

Female Voter: No, but it's a great town. I want to keep it that way.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: She said, "It's a great town. I want to keep it that way."

Hixenbaugh: Eventually, we do manage to talk to a few voters.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: These guys are wearin' "I voted" stickers.

Hylton On Scene: Hi. Are you a voter?

Nirav Agrawal: Yes, I am.

Hylton On Scene: Hi. We're with NBC News. We're just tryin' to hear from some people about what brought you out to vote today.

Agrawal: Just it's a really important election 'cause it's, you know, on the opposite side of the street is very against CCAP and I'm a very big proponent of it.

Hylton: Nirav Agrawal, a 48-year-old investment banker, is supporting the candidates who are promising new programs to fight racism at Carroll. His twin two-year-old boys are hiding behind his legs as he talks to us. He says this is the first time he's ever voted in a local election.

Agrawal: I think it's because it's the first time that I've lived in this city where I think, you know, our kids are more (HOKING) at risk because of racism. (CHEERING) Yeah. Our kids are more at risk 'cause of racism and, you know, bullying in this school district than--

Hylton: His family is part of the increase in new residents of South Asian descent that have moved to Southlake over the past decade.

Agrawal: --you know, so.

Hylton On Scene: Your kids are pretty small.

Agrawal: Yeah.

Hylton On Scene: What's your concern or fear for them--

Agrawal: Well, for the--

Hylton On Scene: --as they go through the system here?

Agrawal: Yeah, just that they will start in that school system in two, 2.5 years and I want to be proactive and make sure it's fixed by then.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Hylton On Scene: Hi, guys.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: They're (LAUGHTER) so cute. Look at their little masks. (LAUGH)

Hylton On Scene: Anything else...

Hixenbaugh: A little later, Jason Rudman, a white business executive and father of two, stops to chat after casting his ballot. His wife and their two children are with him.

Jason Rudman: So, the issues that are being discussed and voted upon are too important to not vote.

Hixenbaugh: Although his two kids attend private school, he says he's very concerned with the state of affairs at Carroll.

Rudman: I don't feel like we're at a place right now where either side is talking to the other side. I feel like people are lobbing grenades back and forth and, to me, that's the most important thing that needs to be dealt with. So that's the reason I voted.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Well, how do you-- 'cause the two sides are saying-- if you go this way, they're taking you far extreme in this direction. If you vote this way, you're going far extreme the other way. Where do you fall?

Hixenbaugh: Rudman says he's a conservative so for he voted for the conservative candidates, although right now he's having a hard time remembering their names.

Rudman: I wrote 'em down to be honest with you but I didn't pay close attention. But--

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Is it Hannah Smith and Cam Bryan?

Rudman: Yes.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Okay.

Hixenbaugh: Rudman says he's not opposed to school diversity programs. But he says he read something somewhere about how the Carroll school board developed the plan during secret meetings, which isn't true. All of the district diversity council meetings were open to the public. He, likely, was referring to the criminal charges against two school board members for texting about the diversity plan before the meeting to vote on it.

Rudman: I think it all needs to be done in the light. I think there need to be discussions about it. And I think people need to come to consensus, not try to backdoor something one way or the other.

Hylton: Before walking away from us, Rudman's wife, Kim, leans in toward our microphone.

Kim Rudman: This is our first local election to vote and part of the reason we are voting is actually to send the message to our children that whether or not, in this political climate, we can see it, an individual vote matters and to not give up on the process. And that's part of...

Hixenbaugh: She says they voted to send a message to their children. Actually, that's how a lot of voters are feeling this morning. Parents from all backgrounds are seeing this election as a referendum not just about who should serve on the school board but about what this city stands for.

Hylton: And now, their children were waiting to hear what the voters of Southlake had to say. From NBC News, I'm Antonia Hylton.

Hixenbaugh: I'm Mike Hixenbaugh.

Hylton: And this is Southlake. Chapter 6: Protect the Tradition.

Hixenbaugh: Election Day is always a waiting game. The arguments have all been made. The ads have all aired. So, candidates end up spending the day standing around feeling nervous. At Town Square around lunchtime, Antonia and I spotted a few of the Southlake Family's pet candidates gathered outside city hall with a group of their supporters. We'd been trying to talk with these candidates for weeks, so we gave it one last shot.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: 'Scuse me, Mr. Huffman.

John Huffman: Yeah, John Huffman

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Mike Hixenbaugh.

Huffman: Oh, Mike. Oh, yeah--

Hixenbaugh On Scene: We've traded messages in the past.

Huffman: Yeah, well, welcome to Southlake, man.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Thanks.

Huffman: First time?

Hixenbaugh: Back in 2018, city councilman John Huffman was one of the Southlake leaders who spoke out after the viral N-word video.

Huffman In Archival Recording: Racism is real. It's around us and sweeping it under the rug is not gonna help.

Hixenbaugh: Now, as a candidate for mayor, he wasn't interested in talking with us about why he opposed the diversity plan. I'd sent him messages requiring an interview, but he never responded.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: How's it goin'?

Huffman: Oh, it's going great. It's going great. Yeah. Here's what I'll say: Southlake's an awesome place. It's an amazing place and we're seeing a ton of energy. The whole city's comin' out. And we're excited. So, yeah.

Hylton On Scene: What do you think is at stake in the election?

Huffman: That's all that I'll say. So, yeah, appreciate you guys bein' here. Thank you so much. Yeah.

Hixenbaugh: As Huffman turned away from us, I spotted Hannah Smith in a green campaign T-shirt and baseball cap. She and I had traded several messages trying to arrange an interview but, in the end, she declined, texting me that week, quote, "The other side has been so awful. I can't put my kids through that."

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Hannah. Mike. Nice to meet you in person.

Hannah Smith: Hi. Nice to meet you.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: She shook my hand and then immediately turned away.

Hylton On Scene: Yeah, so I want to give that a second shot.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Okay.

Hixenbaugh: But we didn't get another chance to approach Smith or the other Southlake Families PAC candidates. (CROWD NOISE) Soon the pace of people coming to vote slowed. Record numbers of Southlake residents had already cast ballots during early voting. By the time the polls closed on election night in this city of 30,000, more than 9,000 people had voted, three times the normal turnout for these local races. The only thing left now was the counting.

Hylton: In the end--

Huffman: Hey, hey, listen y'all.

Hylton: --it was not close.

Huffman: If anybody doubted where we stood on CCAP and that we will not tolerate our kids being taught that most important (CHEERING) is the power of their skin, if anybody...

Hixenbaugh: John Huffman was now the next mayor of Southlake.

Huffman: (CHEERS) Congratulations, Southlake.

Hixenbaugh: He, and Hannah Smith, and all the other Southlake Families PAC candidates had won in a landslide.

Smith: With a 70% victory. (CHEERS)

Hylton: That's a bigger share of the vote than even the nearly 2/3 of Southlake residents who backed Donald Trump in 2020. We weren't invited to the party for all the Southlake Families PAC candidates. We didn't even know where it was happening. But supporters posted videos of the speeches on social media. Hannah Smith told the crowd this was just the beginning.

Smith: So now the work begins, and we need you behind us because this is when the real work begins.

Hixenbaugh: "Relish tonight," she said, because there was still plenty of fight to come.

Smith: And we're gonna show them who are the Dragons. (CHEERS) Thank you.

Hylton: Across town, a very different scene was unfolding at Southlake's Cambria Hotel, where the slate of pro-diversity plan candidates gathered to watch the election results. The polls had just closed. Hotel workers were still setting out drinks and hors d'oeuvres when news of the results began to spread through the room. We noticed Elisha Rurka taking a phone call.

Elisha Rurka: Linda got 2,040...

Hylton: Elisha, a white mother of three, had been running for city council against a Southlake Families-backed candidate. She turned to Ed Hernandez and mouthed the word "blowout."

Rurka: No shit. This is the tally. (LAUGH)

Ed Hernandez: Okay, yeah, we need--

Rurka: Do you want to move?

Hylton: "Do you want to move," she asked Ed. He's the Mexican American business consultant who'd been running for school board against Hannah Smith. Ed didn't respond, just frowned, then turned around and headed for the bar.

Hixenbaugh: Elisha and Ed knew they were underdogs, especially when the race was framed as conservatives versus liberals in a town that's solidly Republican. But the margin of their defeat? That was hitting hard.

Hylton On Scene: Did you hear you--

Rurka: Little disheartening, but.

Hylton On Scene: Did I hear you ask Ed if he wants to move? (LAUGH)

Rurka: That was a joke. That was a joke. I think. Yeah. (LAUGH) No. It is. It is. But it's a thing, though. It's like, we love it here. We all love our town and it's just this-- I don't know. This whole last year's been just crazy. It doesn't feel like the same place in some ways, you know?

Hixenbaugh: We spotted Jennifer Hough across the room, scrolling through the results on her phone. She's a white mom of two who's been an outspoken supporter of changes at Carroll. Standing alone, she looked defeated. It didn't help that her arm was in a sling. Earlier that week, she'd slipped and fallen while running to get out of a lightning storm.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: How are you feeling?

Jennifer Hough: Pissed. Because it feels like hate wins. So. We lost. Now we just have to take a little time off, and regroup, and-- we've lost a battle. We haven't lost the war. The town is changing. More people are moving in. So, it's not gonna be like this forever.

Hixenbaugh: There was a lot of that at the Cambria on this night: people coming to terms with what just happened, trying to rationalize it, telling themselves they would just regroup and try again next time.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: Is that a seat at the table? Why don't we sit on that--

Hernandez: We should make it a seat. Make it a seat.

Hylton: We stepped outside onto the hotel patio. Ed Hernandez was sitting with a beer.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: How you doin'?

Hernandez: I'm doing good, you know? I tried to keep it really positive. I feel great.

Hylton: His body language was telling a different story.

Hixenbaugh On Scene: The margin.

Hernandez: It's just-- I am really shocked that it was that gap. I'm really in shock. I don't know. I don't know. I think that they did a great job, obviously, of making this a partisan race. They did a great job about fearmongering, about labelling me, you know, as this guy from the radical left, and Marxist-- which I'm not, by the way. But at least I guess I learned that that works. (LAUGH) That actually works.

Hylton On Scene: What message do you think this sends to the kids at Carroll, kids who for the most part couldn't even vote in this election?

Hernandez: I'm really-- (SIGH) I want to save that answer for Monday. Today is a celebration, you know? I don't want to think about all these kids that shared their stories, their testimonies. I don't want to think about that right now because it's really hard. Really, really hard for me.

Hylton: He was talking about the hundreds of current and former Carroll kids who'd shared stories of discrimination and harassment.

Hernandez: I feel really bad for all those kids, for, you know, every single one of them that shared a story. And I don't have any words for them. I don't want to talk about it.

Hixenbaugh: Ed's eyes were wet as he abruptly got up and walked away. The next morning, we stopped off to visit one of the kids Ed had been talking about.

Hylton On Scene: How are you making sense of the election results?

Em: I am upset. (LAUGH)

Hixenbaugh: Two months had passed since Em filed a complaint against the boys who sent her vulgar Instagram messages mocking her gender identity. She'd been anxiously awaiting the election results.

Em: Oh, gosh. That, like-- they came out last night and it just, like, I knew we didn't really have that big of a shot. But yeah. It just hurts. (LAUGH) It's so (LAUGH) upsetting. It broke me last night. I was, like, I knew it would be bad, but it just hit me and, like, we're still gonna be doing this for years, like, fighting for this. And that's (VOICE BREAKS) upsetting, yeah.

Hixenbaugh: Em and her parents had been pulling for the candidates who promised to implement new diversity and inclusion programs at Carroll to help students and staff learn about issues affecting queer students like her. Now, with the election results, she was losing hope that more meaningful changes would ever come. Em's only got one year left at Carroll and she says she can't wait to finish it.

Em: I think, like, what's happened to me here and, like, what I've learned here in my learning environment, (LAUGH) whether educational or just bad things that have happened, I think I'm gonna carry that with me because it's just teenage years are foundational. (LAUGH) And Southlake sucks. (LAUGH)

Hylton: But lots of people saw the results differently. To them, the landslide election wasn't a retreat from the town's ideals. It was proof that the majority of residents here are united. And with the losing side licking their wounds, the winners were fired up and ready to assert their new mandate.

Hixenbaugh: In the days after Southlake Families PAC's blowout election wins, the results were making a big splash nationally and not just on NBC News.

Laura Ingraham: All right, I'm Laura Ingraham. This is Ingraham Angle from Washington tonight.

Hixenbaugh: Laura Ingraham opened her show with it. The clear message from Southlake, Texas, she told Fox News viewers, was:

Ingraham: We're winning. That's the focus of tonight's angle.

Hixenbaugh: For months, Ingraham had been calling on her audience to fight back against the rise of Black Lives Matter and critical race theory in American society.

Ingraham: And more of you are smartly heeding that call because in Saturday's election in Southlake, Texas, candidates opposed to the far-left BLM curriculum won the two open seats on the Carroll Independent School District board with nearly 70% of the vote.

Hixenbaugh: The Wall Street Journal editorial board praised the outcome in an op ed titled Southlake Says No to Woke Education. The Federalist compared the conservative uprising in Southlake to the early days of the Tea Party movement in 2010. Soon, conservative outlets like The National Review were pumping out profiles of Southlake Families PAC, holding the group up as a model to be emulated in suburban school districts across America.

Ingraham: And that's the angle.

Hylton: The two newly elected school board candidates who rode the backlash into office were themselves becoming conservative stars. Both made appearances on national news outlets that week, though still neither was willing to speak with us. Here's Hannah Smith on Fox & Friends.

Steve Doocy: A Texas school district making major gains in the fight against critical race theory as two candidates...

Hylton: After host Steve Doocy introduces her, Smith explains what got folks in Southlake so energized.

Smith: When the, you know, mainstream media was saying that we're an awful town, people are racist, our kids are racist, our schools are systemically racist, it just wasn't right. And so, people turned out to the polls in record numbers. So, it was a radical response by our community saying, "We will not stand for this false narrative anymore."

Doocy: Well, people across the country are talking about your school board election. Congratulations for winnin'. Hannah Smith.

Conservative Parents: Stop the masks. Stop the masks. Stop the masks.

Hylton: The first Carroll School Board meeting of the new era came just two days after election day. And the people of Southlake weren't exactly singing Kumbaya as they waited in line to get in. (CHEERS) This is the school board meeting we told you about at the very start of this series. Conservative parents were out in force, waving homemade signs, demanding that the school board get rid of COVID safety measures and the diversity plan.

Conservative Parents: Hey.

How are ya?

Good, good.

Hylton: There was the woman with a poster showing a masked little girl with pigtails next to George Floyd's dying words, "I can't breathe," and the mom carrying blown-up images of school board president Michelle Moore's mug shot.

Man With Sign: He grabbed my sign, which is part of my person. He attacked me. Officer, you need to do something about this.

Hylton: And, of course, the two guys arguing over a sign.

Archival Recording: No more bullying. Let's go. (APPLAUSE) He needs to go. We've had enough of your nonsense.

Hixenbaugh: More than 60 people had signed up to speak during public comments. And over the next two hours, a familiar cast of characters approached the lectern to demand that the board bend to the will of the majority.

Community Members: On Saturday, Southlake voters made a clear statement of the direction we want for our city and our schools.

Seventy percent of our community disagree with critical race theory. Seventy percent deny there is systemic racism at CISD. Seventy percent want a new school board president.

Southlake families have come together in a fiery response. Today, 5/3/2021, you need to resign, or we will continue to breathe fire upon this corrupt school board.

Thank you. (APPLAUSE) All right. (GAVEL)

Hylton: A few people from the losing side had also come to speak, including Robin Cornish.

Archival Recording: Miss Cornish?

Hylton: This is the same room where, more than 2.5 years earlier, Robin and other Black parents first came forward to call for changes at Carroll.

Robin Cornish: Frank's legacy as a resident and volunteer continues today.

Hylton: Now she'd come to let the board know that she still believed in her husband's dream for Southlake.

Cornish: "May his vision of a diverse, inclusive community continue to inspire future generations." This is the final paragraph on Frank's plaque in the park in Southlake. So, the 70% that have an issue with those two words might want to go back to where they came from. So, for us in the struggle for diversity and inclusion, don't give up. Stand up, dust yourself off, stay in the fight. This is just one battle. The war is not over. (APPLAUSE)

Hixenbaugh: Outside the building afterward, with more speakers still coming forward, Robin found Russell Maryland and gave him a hug.

Cornish: Hey. Hey, (LAUGH) how you doin'? All right.

Russell Maryland: Hey. I am feeling glad to get everything off my chest.

Hixenbaugh: Robin told Russell she was reeling from what she had just heard inside.

Cornish: The absolute disrespect and disregard was appalling. And for me, it truly gave me a reflection of what goes on in the schools and what trauma and abuse these kids are subjected to. And it has me angry and nearly in tears. They can make a lot of noise, ring the cowbells, but it just pushes me to keep fighting the struggle and believing that there will be diversity, there will be inclusion, and there will be equity for everyone in this community. It may not be won tomorrow but it's gonna be won.

Hylton: Robin's youngest child graduated three years ago. She's since moved 15 minutes away, but she still feels an unshakable connection to the town where she and Frank chose to raise their kids and to all the students of color who'd reached out to her to thank her for speaking up.

Cornish: And, you know, my thought is for the longest-- "Run away. Don't come back." But I think I'll stay and come ridin' up the hill with the rest of the cavalry and make this community what my husband envisioned it to be, what I envisioned it to be, and make it better for the kids that are to follow mine.

Hixenbaugh: Of course, Robin and Russell weren't the only ones staying in the fight. In late May, leaders of Southlake Families PAC invited a special guest back to town for a gathering at the home of one of the PAC's leaders. The Texas GOP posted a video of the event online.

Pac Leader: He is a true patriot (LAUGHTER), and he is the man that has made pecan pie the most (CHEERS) famous dessert in Southlake, Texas. Please welcome Allen West. (CHEERS)

Hixenbaugh: Texas GOP chairman Allen West, the guy who got us started on this story.

Allen West: Oh, boy. Thank you so very much. It's a pleasure and an honor to be here.

Hixenbaugh: Actually, as of this summer, it's former Texas GOP chairman. Not long after this event, West announced that he was stepping down to launch a campaign for Texas governor. He calls Kristin Garcia to the front of the room. She's the mom who filed the lawsuit that effectively derailed the diversity plan last fall, buying Southlake Families PAC time to get organized.

West: Now, think about a simple woman by the name of Rosa Park who said, "I'm not gonna go to the back of the bus. I'm gonna sit right here." Kristin is the Rosa Parks of Southlake, Texas. (CHEERS)

Hixenbaugh: The video shows Garcia smiling with her hands folded in front of her and mouthing, "Thank you."

West: So, Kristin, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for bein' that Rosa Parks that stood up and has created a movement that has rippled all across the United States of America. God bless you. (CHEERING) But now what you have to do-- this is a best practice. This is a lesson learned. You have to put this in a white paper. You have to make a video. You've got to make sure that you export this to every single major suburban area in the United States of America outside of a blue-controlled city.

Hixenbaugh: That's their next mission, West says: export what they did in Southlake to every major suburban area in the United States of America. If you've been paying attention to the news lately, you already know that work is well underway.

Newscaster: Developing right now, Duval County is ground zero today in the battle over the hot button issue of critical race theory.

Hylton: An NBC News analysis found that in the four months after Southlake's May 1st election, at least 220 school districts across the country faced backlash against diversity and equity initiatives.

Newscasters: Parents and neighbors clashed over new initiatives from the district's diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.

A heated debate in yet another Metro Atlanta school district.

The Florida department of education is scheduled to vote on new state guidelines banning the ideology from being taught in schools.

District leaders are planning a final vote to ban the teaching of critical race theory.

Not a single public school in all of Colorado teaches critical race theory and yet it seems to be the only thing some parents want to talk about.

Hixenbaugh: Meanwhile, dozens of new political action committees and nonprofits have popped up all over on a mission to rid schools of any programs that they say are inspired by critical race theory. One national group, founded by a former Trump administration official, even put out a handy how-to guide for local communities to follow. It offered instructions for rallying residents to stop new diversity initiatives and suggestions for how to win seats on school boards.

Hylton: That 34-page blueprint for achieving victory repeatedly cites the work of one group of conservative parents who have been more successful than perhaps any other group across the country: Southlake Families PAC. Even as the Southlake Families PAC gospel spread to suburbs across America, the Carroll school district was searching for its own path forward. The two newest board members had now officially taken their seats.

Archival Recording: I, Hannah Smith...

Smith: I, Hannah Smith...

Archival Recording: Do solemnly swear...

Smith: Do solemnly swear.

Hylton: But that didn't bring Carroll any closer to a resolution on the CCAP or the future direction of the school district. Kristin Garcia's civil lawsuit and the resulting restraining order were still pending, blocking the district from implementing the diversity plan.

And with the board now split between rival factions, members weren't able to reach a majority decision on who should be its new president. So according to district rules, that meant Carroll's indicted school board president, Michelle Moore, would continue in that role even as, week after week, parents continued showing up, calling for her resignation and celebrating the thought of her going to jail.

Archival Recording: Perhaps the worst decision is your decision to go to trial. My father-in-law that spoke weeks ago. He practiced many cases against your attorney, and I will be there with bells on to watch.

Our next speaker is Ashley McCurry.

Hylton: We tried repeatedly to arrange another interview with Moore but given the pending criminal charges, she said she was taking her lawyer's advice not to talk to reporters. Moore told us she wanted to focus on her family after what's been a difficult year for all of them. She's a mother of Dragons, too. And her daughter was about to graduate from high school.

Hixenbaugh: Carroll's new superintendent was moving ahead with a change he hoped could help. And this summer, he finally agreed to sit down with us.

Hylton: Hi, Doctor Ledbetter.

Lane Ledbetter: Good mornin'.

Hylton: Thank you for making time for us.

Hixenbaugh: Lane Ledbetter, the Carroll alum who landed his dream job to lead his beloved hometown school district right in the middle of the biggest political fight in town history.

Ledbetter: Just-- it's home for me. It is a challenging time, but I can also say that it's a challenging time for anyone in this profession. The things that are happening in Southlake and the things that are happening in Carroll ISD are happening, as you well know, across the nation, honestly.

Hixenbaugh: After meeting with parents and students across the district, Ledbetter and his staff said they had found one key area where everyone seemed to agree. Before school resumed in the fall, he said the district would be retraining principals on how to properly investigate complaints and enforce the student code of conduct. Basically, the same change that the district had already promised Em and her parents a few months earlier. Ledbetter also appointed a new deputy superintendent whose primary mission is to oversee that effort.

Ledbetter: Because so many of the things that we've heard from students is that they didn't report somethin' because they didn't feel like it would have been taken seriously, that they didn't feel like anything was done with other incidents. So those are the things that we're focusing on. We're working with our principals...

Hylton: But if queer or minority students were holding out hope that the district would still implement some kind of diversity and inclusion training, Ledbetter made clear that nothing like the CCAP would be on the table anytime soon, especially with the temporary restraining order (or TRO) still in place.

Ledbetter: So, I mean, it's part of the TRO. I certainly, you know, as-- we are not at this point, because of what's in place, looking at any type of diversity, equity, inclusion plan right now.

Hylton: And as for the problem that the diversity plan was created to address in the first place?

Hylton On Scene: Is there racism in Southlake and in Carroll ISD?

Ledbetter: So, let me think about that question. I'm gonna stop there. (LAUGH) I didn't know that was gonna be asked.

Hylton: Ledbetter paused to consult with the district's communications director.

Ledbetter: Miss Fitzgerald, would you like to think about how we want to?

Communications Director: I think it's just...

Hixenbaugh: After the viral N-word video two years ago, it seemed like most everyone in town was willing to at least acknowledge that racism exists, even in idyllic Southlake. But now, with all that's happened since then, the man who'd been hired with the mission of bringing this community back together wasn't willing to say whether he believed that.

Ledbetter: I don't know that I necessarily have to have a yes or no to that question. For me, I am focused on-- as I mentioned several times, my priority is the students. I love Southlake. I do. Nothing has changed the way I feel. No student should feel not valued. No student should feel unsafe. And we're gonna 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.

Nikki Olaleye: I'm feeling a little bit all over the place, I think.

Hylton: It's May 28th. After a rough school year dominated by a pandemic and the political fight in town, the Southlake Carroll High School class of 2021 is about to graduate. We're at the home of Nikki Olaleye, the Black Carroll High Schooler who jumped at the chance to help with the district diversity council and who'd organized the Black Lives Matter protest at Town Square in the summer of 2020.

Olaleye In Archival Recording: (CROWD NOISE) My concern lies with the future generations...

Hylton: Back then, Nikki believed Southlake was on the cusp of change.

Olaleye In Archival Recording: We fight so that our children won't have to feel the same way we do now: unsafe and unheard. (CHEERS)

Hylton: A year later, she's about to graduate. And right now, she's focused on applying a pair of fake eyelashes.

Hylton On Scene: Has the meaning of this day hit you yet?

Olaleye: I don't think it will until I actually get to, like, walk, you know? Once I get to, like, actually cross the stage and get my diploma, then I'll feel like I've really done it.

Hylton: She's planning to start at the University of San Francisco in the fall. She's going to stay involved with the Student Anti-Racism Coalition but she's happy that she'll be doing it from afar.

Archival Recording: I'm sure a lot of people reflect on their high school experience with a lot of joy and a lot of nostalgia. But I'm probably just gonna see it as, like, a time that I-- (SIGH) like, I made it through it. I'm glad that it's pretty much almost over now.

Hixenbaugh: (CROWD NOISE) (MUSIC) Around 6:00 p.m., people start packing into Dragon Stadium.

Hylton: Tonight, many of its 11,000 seats are filled as the senior class files onto the football field, filling rows of socially distanced folding chairs that stretch from end zone to end zone.

Hixenbaugh: As the band plays, images of graduating seniors flash across the screen along with words of encouragement from their parents. A huge banner strung up on the stadium's upper level displays the school district's slogan: "Protect the tradition." Nobody in the program mentions the bitter feud that's consumed the town. And, of course, that's really not what tonight is about. But there are reminders everywhere you look.

Shawn Duhon: Thank you. You may be seated.

Hylton: For starters, the master of ceremonies is Principal Shawn Duhon.

Duhon: First off, before I get started, just a couple things: How 'bout them Dragon baseball team with a 9-0 victory? (CHEERS)

Hylton: The student speeches focus on how hard it was to finish out high school in a pandemic and about what challenges lie ahead.

Graduating Senior: When I was coming up with something to write for my speech, I was thinkin', "I'm just an 18-year-old kid-- I mean, young man-- that's trapped in this world we like to call the Southlake bubble." Let's be honest here. We really don't know much about how the real-world works.

Hixenbaugh: Soon the roll call begins.

Duhon: And the moment we've been waiting for: (LAUGHTER) Chase Bradford Adams.

Hylton: Among the 700 graduates who begin to process across the stage are several of the students who appeared in the 2018 N-word video, though we're not playing their names. Also graduating is Liv Ferguson, the girl who told us that she'd run to the bathroom to cry when some of those students got perfect scores on the quiz they'd missed. About halfway through, it's Nikki's turn to walk up to the stage, shake Duhon's hand, and get her diploma.

Duhon: Nikki Olaleye. (CHEERS)

Hylton: Nikki's family goes wild. They know that this is likely their last time in the stands. After all that's happened in town, they're planning to sell their house and move.

Duhon: Zachary Brian Zovanacek. (CHEERS)

Hixenbaugh: With the reading of the final name, Principal Duhon makes it official.

Duhon: Seniors of 2021, class dismissed. (CHEERS)

Hylton: The students launch their caps into the air and proud Dragon parents and grandparents jostle their way out of the stand and onto the field to congratulate them.

Hylton: Nikki and a friend are celebrating near the 30-yard line.

Olaleye: Hi.

Friend: Hello.

Olaleye: Hello.

Friend: Congratulations.

Olaleye: Thank you so much...

Hixenbaugh: The crowd begins to melt away. Everyone has parties to get to and plans to make. No one seems to want to talk about all the unfinished business the district will have to take up in the fall. And in truth, a lot of them won’t be around to see it. Nikki and her friends will be busy college freshmen. Even Duhon is leaving. He's taking a job as principal of a different high school up the road.

Hylton: In a few weeks, a new crop of students will be walking the halls at Carroll Senior High, making their own judgments, making their own mistakes, and (Nikki hopes) making progress.

Olaleye: I really pray that Southlake has a better future moving forward. And I hope that it's not similar to how it's been so far. We made it, and we're here, and it's over, so it's time to start recovering and getting ready to see what we can do to make it better.

Hylton: From NBC News, this is the final episode of Southlake. The series was written, reported, and hosted by me, Antonia Hylton.

Hixenbaugh: And by me, Mike Hixenbaugh. Additional reporting for this episode by Tyler Kingkade. 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. Madeline Haeringer is our head of editorial.

Hylton: Lots of different people helped in lots of different ways to make this series possible. Special thanks to Nick Offenberg, Soraya Gage, Brendan Charney, Alex Ziccardi, Lai Ling Jew, Catherine Kim, David Firestone, and Noah Oppenheim.

Hixenbaugh: We also want to thank Amy Bond, Shalini Sharma, Ben Plimpton, Tom Parrinello, Claire Tighe, Alexa Corea, Frank Radono, Michael Delfin, Angeline Kelly, and Feedstore BBQ.