This past summer — nearly two years after the viral video — the school board unveiled a plan that would require diversity and inclusion training for a
This past summer — nearly two years after the viral video — the school board unveiled a plan that would require diversity and inclusion training for all students as part of the K-12 curriculum, while amending the student code of conduct to specifically prohibit acts of discrimination, referred to in the document as “microaggressions.”
Within days, outraged parents — most of them white — formed a political action committee and began packing school board meetings to voice their strong opposition. Some denounced the diversity plan as “Marxist” and “leftist indoctrination” designed to “fix a problem that doesn’t exist.” The opponents said they, too, wanted all students to feel safe at Carroll, but they argued that the district’s plan would instead create “diversity police” and amounted to “reverse racism” against white children.
The dispute grew so heated that parents on both sides pulled children out of the school system, while others made plans to move out of town. One mother sued the district, successfully putting the diversity plan on hold.
As the fight intensified, Cornish, whose youngest child graduated in 2018, began to think differently about Carroll’s official motto, stamped on T-shirts and yard signs across Southlake.
“Protect the Tradition.”
She started to wonder: What was the tradition her neighbors were fighting to protect?
‘Everyone smiles in Southlake’
Robin and Frank Cornish moved to Southlake in 1993, shortly after Frank was signed as an offensive lineman by the Dallas Cowboys. Back then, the city was more rural than suburban — little more “than a two-lane dirt road,” Robin liked to joke.
There weren’t many other Black folks when the Cornishes arrived, but Frank fell in love with the wide open space. And with their first son soon on the way, Robin Cornish liked the prospect of sending their children to top-notch public schools.
Like many small towns in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area in the early 1990s, Southlake was on the cusp of explosive population growth. In the nearly three decades since the Cornishes arrived, Southlake’s population has tripled to more than 31,000 residents, driven in part by a surge of immigrants from South Asia. Hundreds more Black people also moved in, though they still make up less than 2 percent of the population in a city where 74 percent of residents are white.
With its proximity to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the headquarters of several Fortune 500 companies, the city became a magnet for wealthy professionals, with the median household income now topping $230,000.
As it grew, Southlake gained a reputation in the Dallas area as a sort of suburban utopia, with master-planned neighborhoods and dominant high school sports programs. A 2007 D Magazine article about the Carroll football team’s run of state championships described the city’s “otherworldly” charm.
“They’re good at everything in Southlake,” the magazine said. “If you’ve never been, there’s something a little Pleasantville about it. The streets are cleaner than your streets, the downtown more vibrant, the students more courteous, their parents more prosperous. Everyone is beautiful in Southlake. Everyone smiles in Southlake.”
After retiring from the NFL, Frank Cornish immersed himself in the place. He began volunteering as a coach for youth football teams and later served as chairman of the city’s parks and recreation board. He even convinced a couple of ex-Cowboys teammates to move to the city to raise their children.
“Everybody used to always think of him as the unofficial mayor of Southlake,” Robin Cornish said. “He knew everybody, and everybody loved him. He eventually wanted to run for mayor.”
But when Frank died of a heart attack in 2008 at the age of 40, Robin Cornish faced a difficult decision. She thought seriously about moving her five children to Chicago, where she’d grown up. Despite Southlake’s many accolades, she’d grown troubled by the steady drumbeat of racially insensitive remarks — some subtle, some overt — that Black people often endure in affluent communities where the vast majority of residents don’t look like them.
One example: Every year when Cornish’s children were small, Carroll fifth graders were required to participate in Colonial Day, an educational celebration in which students dress up like characters from the 1600s. But little thought seemed to go into what that meant for Black children, Cornish said, an oversight that became all too clear when a classmate told one of her daughters that she couldn’t dress up like a nurse; she would have been a slave.
But after her husband’s funeral, Cornish decided to stick it out. Although it would be a struggle to cover the high cost of living on a nurse’s salary, she had a support system in Southlake, and Cornish didn’t want to add to her children’s trauma by taking them from their friends.
“At the time, I knew it was not the best environment for the kids,” she said. “But they’d just lost their dad.”
She also knew it would be hard to find a school district to match Carroll’s academic excellence.
And her children’s education was what mattered most.
A plan to confront racism
After the 2018 viral video, the Carroll school board called a special meeting and invited members of the community to share their thoughts on how to move forward.
Cornish was the first to step up to the microphone. Reading from prepared remarks, she rattled off a few of the racist comments she said her children had endured.
“The scars are there, the wounds are permanent,” she told the board, as some in the audience wiped away tears, according to people who attended. “You all have to take a stand. You’ve got to change this curriculum. You’ve got to change the tone in this town.”
The audience of mostly white parents clapped as Cornish stepped away from the lectern. More parents followed, each sharing stories of racist bullying that traumatized their children, with little or no consequences for the offending students.
Michelle Moore, a school board trustee, remembered feeling a mix of anger and shame as she listened. She had no idea so many children felt like they’d been bullied at Carroll based on their race. How could she have been so oblivious?
“I left that meeting saying, ‘This is unacceptable, and this is not going to be the way it is under my watch,’” said Moore, the Hispanic daughter of Cuban immigrants, who has since been appointed by the school board to serve as its president. “We had a responsibility as a board to do something.”
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It was the beginning of a nearly two-year effort to change the way the school district of 8,500 students handles diversity and inclusion. The initiative gained momentum in February 2019 when a second video surfaced of Carroll students yelling the N-word, and again a year later when three teens spray-painted racist slurs at Carroll High School. The school system put out a call for volunteers and appointed 63 community members to a diversity council that would study possible solutions.
The school board recruited Russell Maryland, Frank Cornish’s friend and a former Cowboys teammate, to lend his celebrity as a former No. 1 NFL draft pick to the committee’s work.
The result of the effort — a 34-page document known as the Cultural Competence Action Plan — was made public in July. It called for mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all Carroll students and teachers, 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 plan also proposed creating a new position at Carroll, director of equity and inclusion, to oversee the district’s efforts.
“The way we saw it, this was a fairly basic plan,” said Maryland, who is Black, noting that many big school districts already have similar policies. “Just a basic plan of human decency, empathy, kindness, inclusion and understanding about other cultures. It’s as simple as that — or so we thought.”
Moore, the school board president, said what followed was “a perfect storm.”
The diversity plan was released as the country was in the midst of an emotionally charged reckoning over racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. At the same time, dozens of parents who’d never paid much attention to school board meetings were now coming to comment on the district’s plans for resuming in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.
“How many more things can you pile up that people are anxious, upset and fearful about all at one time?” Moore said.
Southlake’s ‘true colors’
The opposition to the diversity plan was fierce, immediate and well organized.
Moore and other board members were flooded with angry emails from parents. Some formed a political action committee, Southlake Families PAC, and started a website demanding that the board “focus on fall classes, not setting up a district diversity police!” The group quickly raised more than $100,000 from dozens of residents, including from some of the high-powered executives and leading conservatives who’ve settled in Southlake. (Dana Loesch, a former National Rifle Association spokeswoman and right-wing media star who lives in Southlake, gave the group $2,000, campaign finance records show.)
For months last summer and into the fall, the public comment section of Carroll’s school board meetings became a spectacle, as dozens of parents showed up each week to speak against the plan.
A white father said he supported introducing children to different cultures but argued that the district’s plan would instead teach students “how to be a victim” and force them to adopt “a liberal ideology” in a city where more than two-thirds of voters cast ballots for President Donald Trump in 2020.
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 board had awoken Southlake’s “silent majority.”
Opposition to the diversity plan coalesced around two central points: that the district’s student code of conduct already prohibited bullying in all forms, and the belief among some conservatives that any instruction that emphasizes racial differences can only perpetuate rather than heal divisions. Some opponents flatly denied that systemic racism exists and argued that children should be taught not to see race.
Even Southlake Mayor Laura Hill, who’d hosted meetings on fighting intolerance after the 2018 viral video, spoke out against the plan, writing in a letter to the school board in September that the process had lacked transparency, creating a “crisis of confidence” among Southlake residents. Hill, who is white, urged the board to invite more community stakeholders into the process to “earn back our citizens’ confidence.”
At one school board meeting, some in attendance booed Nikki Olaleye, a Black 12th grade student at Carroll Senior High School, after she turned to the audience and declared: “Black lives matter. My life matters.”
“People in Southlake have been showing their true colors,” Olaleye said later in an interview.
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