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In bitterly divided election in Southlake, Texas, anti-racist education opponents win big

SOUTHLAKE, Texas – Nine months after officials from the Carroll Independent School District put forward a proposal to tackle racial and cultural intolerance in schools, voters on Saturday won a resounding victory on a list of school board candidates and to the city council who opposed the plan.

In an unusually bitter campaign that echoed a growing national division over how to deal with issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools, the candidates for the town of Southlake were split between two camps: those who supported the new diversity and inclusion training requirements for Carroll students and teachers and those backed by a political action committee that was formed last year to derail the plan.

On the one hand, progressives have argued that curriculum and disciplinary changes are needed to make all children feel safe and welcome in Carroll, a predominantly white but rapidly diversifying school district. On the other hand, Southlake Tories have dismissed the school diversity plan as an effort to indoctrinate students with a far-left ideology that some say institutionalizes discrimination against white children and those with conservative Christian values.

Candidates and voters on both sides called the election a “fork” for Southlake, a wealthy suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas. “The same is true for Southlake,” warned a local Conservative commentator in the weeks leading up to the election, “the same is true for the rest of America.”

In the end, the competition was not over. Candidates backed by conservative Southlake Families PAC, which has raised more than $ 200,000 since last summer, have won each race by roughly 70% to 30%, including those for two school board positions, two seats in city ​​council and a mayor. More than 9,000 voters voted, three times more than in similar contests in the past.

A local election in Southlake, Texas saw an unusually high turnout on May 1, as a fight for a school diversity plan divided the city. Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News

Hannah Smith, a prominent Southlake lawyer who worked for Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, defeated Ed Hernandez, a business consultant, to win a seat on the Carroll school board. In a statement to NBC News on Sunday, Smith, who is white, said the election “was a referendum on those who put personal politics and divisive philosophies ahead of the students and families of Carroll ISD, as well as their common American heritage and the values ​​of Texas “.

“Voters have come together in record numbers to restore unity,” Smith said. “With an overwhelming vote, they don’t want critical racial theory of race taught to their children or forced on their teachers. Voters approved my positive view of our community and its future.”

Hernandez and other candidates in support of new diversity and inclusion agendas said they weren’t particularly surprised by the outcome in a historically conservative city where around two-thirds of voters backed President Donald Trump in 2020, but they were appalled at the margin of their defeat.

School board candidate Ed Hernandez kisses his wife, Jennifer, after learning of his loss in the Southlake municipal election on May 1. Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News

Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant, said he was concerned about the signal the result sends to dozens of Carroll high school students and recent graduates who have told stories of racist and anti-gay bullying over the past two years. . To demonstrate the need for change, members of the student-led Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition collected more than 300 testimonials last year from current and former Carroll students who said they had been abused as a result of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

“I don’t want to think of all those children who shared their stories, their testimonies,” said Hernandez, more and more moved on Saturday after learning of the election results. “I don’t want to think about that now, because it’s really, really hard for me. I feel really bad for all of these kids, every one of them who shared a story. I have no words for it. them. “

The fight in Southlake dates back to the fall of 2018, when a video of white Carroll High School students chanting the N word went viral, making national headlines. Subsequently, principals held listening sessions with students and parents and appointed a committee of 63 community volunteers to develop a plan to make Carroll more welcoming to students of diverse backgrounds.

The effort was, in part, a recognition of changing demographics. Southlake’s population has tripled to over 31,000 over the past three decades, in part thanks to immigrants from South Asia drawn to the region by well-paying jobs and top-notch schools. Black residents make up less than 2 percent of the population of a city where the median household income is over $ 230,000 and where 74 percent of residents are white.

The result of the work of the school’s diversity committee, a 34-page document titled Action Plan for Cultural Competencies, was released last summer, amid a pandemic, stormy presidential election and a broader national record of racism in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

The plan called for mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all students and teachers in Carroll, a formal process for reporting and tracking incidents of racist bullying, and changes to the code of conduct to hold students accountable for acts of discrimination. The proposal also suggested creating the position of Director of Equity and Inclusion to oversee the district’s efforts.

The plan met with rapid and fierce opposition. For months, conservative parents filled school board meetings, denouncing aspects of the proposal that they said would have created a “diversity police” and amounted to “reverse racism.” Members of the Southlake Families PAC, which was formed days after the plan’s publication, particularly challenged the district’s proposal to track incidents of microaggression – subtle, indirect and sometimes unintentional incidents of discrimination.

At a board meeting, a white father said he supported introducing children to different cultures, but argued that the district plan would instead teach students “how to be a victim” and would force to adopt “a liberal ideology”. Several parents said the plan would infringe on their Christian values ​​by teaching children about issues affecting gay and transgender classmates. Others warned that the council had awakened Southlake’s “silent majority”.

Southlake Families PAC backed a mother’s lawsuit against the district and won a temporary restraining order in December that put the diversity plan on hold. Then, last month, two school board members who had backed the plan were indicted by a Tarrant County grand jury, which charged them with violating the Texas town hall law, a misdemeanor, after opponents of the diversity plan have obtained texts showing that the members addressed a message to each other before voting.

The issue became the defining theme of Southlake’s typically low-key municipal election this spring, dividing neighbors and old friends. The Tarrant County Democratic Party briefly posted and then deleted an image on social media labeling all candidates who opposed the diversity plan as “racist.” Southlake Families PAC, meanwhile, sent letters accusing pro-diversity candidates of pushing for “radical socialism” in Southlake.

The acrimony put the city in the national spotlight ahead of election day, with a flurry of stories appearing on right-wing news sites describing the contest as a test for a greater national struggle against anti-racist agendas in the schools.

“It’s happening everywhere,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said in a segment Tuesday about Carroll’s diversity plan and the resulting flashback. “They’re going to come in, they’re going to destroy your school, they’re going to hurt your kids, they’re going to take your money, they’re going to bully you, and no one will do anything.” And I’m so thankful to hear about parents doing something. “

As a steady stream of voters from Southlake made their way to City Hall on Saturday, many described the importance of voting. “It’s a great city,” a woman shouted over her shoulder after refusing to speak to reporters. “I want to continue on this path.”

Jason Rudman, a white father of two who voted for the Tory candidate list, said he was disappointed with the political speech in town.

“What’s most important to me is that we have a dialogue,” said Rudman, whose children attend private school. “I don’t feel like we’re in a place right now where either side is talking to the other. I feel like people are throwing grenades back and forth, and for me that’s the most important thing to sort out. with.”

At the Cambria Hotel, where pro-diversity candidates and their supporters gathered on Saturday, the election results party turned grim shortly after 7 p.m. when news of the result swept the hall. In the mayoral race, Tory John Huffman won 71% of the vote to defeat Debra Edmondson. Huffman, who criticized the diversity plan while serving on Southlake City Council, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Southlake School Board supporters and city council candidates who argued for a school diversity plan made a final call for votes on May 1. Nitashia Johnson / for NBC News

Jennifer Hough, a white mother of two Carroll students who campaigned to support the diversity proposal, said she was angry and heartbroken.

“Because it’s like hate wins out,” Hough said. “Like I said, we’ll get mad, then we’ll regroup and see where we’re going now. The city is changing. More people are moving in. So it won’t be like that forever.”

Meanwhile, student members of the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition, which was organized last year to demand change in Carroll, said they were upset with the results but determined to continue pushing for change. .

“I’m not surprised, but I’m disturbed,” said Nikki Olaleye, a 12th grade black student at Carroll Senior High School, who openly criticized the school system’s handling of racist and anti-gay bullying. “I don’t think it’s time to throw a pity party. We’re just ready to keep moving forward and doing what we can, using our voices.”

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