In Southlake, videos with n-word prompt push for ‘zero tolerance’ against racism

In the fall of 1996, a Carroll High School student received a two-week suspension from extracurricular activities and three days detention after holding up a sign at a football game with the letters T.A.N.H.O. — the acronym for “Tear A [N-word] Head Off.

The case angered African-American parents, who questioned the Southlake Carroll’s handling of the incident and a previous situation involving Carroll students chanting the same slurs leading up to a game against Grapevine High School, which had two star players who were African-American.

The superintendent at the time told the Star-Telegram the incidents were isolated and didn’t reflect attitudes at the high school. A 17-year-old African-American Carroll student who saw the sign at the football game was hurt.

“My own school was doing this! And they know that I go to this school, and they know that I’m sitting behind them,” Michael Smallwood told the Star-Telegram in 1996.

More than 20 years later, Cindy Folefack echos Smallwood’s feelings as she described how she was called “afro girl” in elementary school and how her braids were called dreadlocks by students who told her those “dreads” meant she must smoke pot.

“You were pretty different from everybody else and that made you an easy target,” said Folefack, 19, who graduated from Carroll Senior High School in 2017.

Folefack said she lived in a “Southlake bubble” characterized by privilege, little diversity and simmering racial tensions. She found comfort in a small circle of friends.

Racism in Southlake blew up on the public stage on Wednesday when the district responded to complaints about a video circulating that showed three young people in a car while the n-word is uttered repeatedly. One of the young people seen in the video was a Southlake Carroll student, according to a district official. Another Carroll student isdriving the vehicle, off-camera. It was the second time this school that a video circulated showing Southlake students saying the racial slur.

Bigotry is on the minds of some who want change. They point to a need for education and zero tolerance against racism to encourage respect for people of color, immigrants and others. Without change, students said racism tarnishes the school district’s history of academic excellence.

“I feel people should have a zero tolerance policy towards racism, which I don’t think is too much to ask,” Folefack said.

‘Ashamed of the fact that I was black’

As the city of Southlake outgrew its rural roots, an affluent suburban community took its place in northeast Tarrant County, where the meidan household income is $208,000 and the community is largely white. Only 2.6 percent of Southlake’s 31,824 residents were black in 2018; 10.2 were Asian and 5.9 Hispanic.

When families move to North Texas, many soon learn that Southlake boasts some of the state’s best schools. Students consistently excel on state tests helping the district earn stellar accountability ratings. It recently received an “A” grade rating from the Texas Education Agency.

The district touts a 100 percent graduation rate and an average ACT score of 26.6. It has received national and state recognition for athletics and fine arts.

Folefack said her father, a doctor, moved the family from New Jersey for a job in Arlington. After doing research, Southlake was deemed the best for Folefack and her siblings to attend schools.

“He sacrificed and decided to make that commute so my sister and I could get that education,” said Folefack, who is studying biology at the University of Texas at Dallas with plans to be a doctor.

But the academics came with bullying, Folefack said. She was 7 when her family moved to Southlake and they were the only black family on her street, she said.

“At a certain point, I started to become ashamed of the fact that I was black,” she said.

Longtime Southlake resident Robin Cornish, whose husband Frank played for the Dallas Cowboys, recalled troubling incidents that happened to her and her family after moving to Southlake in the early 1990s.

When Cornish’s children were students in the Southlake Carroll schools, they were singled out for being black and were told “sit in the back of the bus” when civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks died, she said.

On another occasion, Cornish said, classmates told her daughter that she couldn’t be a nurse and that she would have to be a slave.

In 2017, Cornish received another bigoted message. She wanted to show relatives a plaque recognizing her husband in a park commemorating his legacy. Her husband died at 40 in 2008.

The message that greeted them was carved on the plaque: “The KKK will get you black people.”

The city removed the sign immediately and replaced it. But Cornish said she still feels on edge when she visits the park.

“When I walk there, my heart starts pounding. I’m afraid I will see that image again,” Cornish said.

A false protection of privacy

In the recent video that circulated on Twitter a young woman is heard saying, ‘Oh my God! Yes, I can say [n-word] more.”

Frederick W. Gooding, an assistant professor of African-American Studies at TCU’s John V. Roach Honors College, said the scene shows how racist behavior emerges when some believe they are protected by privacy.

“Chances are they were not shouting the n-word at homecoming,” Gooding said, adding that for many schools bragging rights in sports includes the talents of students of color.

To address racism, Gooding said students need to be fostered in a diverse inclusive environment that educates them about the roots of inequality in the United States. It’s a school district’s responsibility to create those environments by hiring diverse educators and bringing resources that expose students to diverse perspectives. Nine of the district’s 564 teachers were black in 2017-18, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“Just because you have an affluent community doesn’t mean you have to have an ignorant community,” Gooding said.

Cornish said that education starts at home.

Buddy Luce, a former school board president of Carroll schools, is a long advocate of Southlake and Southlake schools.

“Southlake has had its struggles with racism even during that time,” Luce said, alluding to the 1990s.

But Luce said racial tensions and bullying have escalated in recent years in Southlake as other incidents across the country shape a national discussion on race.

“Sadly, there has been a huge increase in racist incidents since about November 2016,” Luce said.

Earlier this year, Southlake and Tarrant County were in the national spotlight for a different case. That’s when a proposal to remove Shahid Shafi, vice chairman of Tarrant County’s Republican Party, sparked high emotions as concerns about religious freedom spread.

Those pushing a vote to reconsider Shafi’s appointment questioned whether Shafi is loyal to Islam and Islamic law or connected to “Islamic terror groups.”

Those supporting Shafi, a physician and Southlake City Council member, said the issue was about religion and a person’s faith. In the end, the Tarrant County GOP executive committee voted 139-49 in January to keep Shafi in the post.

“We were fighting for religious freedom ... and today we have come out victorious,” Shafi said after the vote.

After the latest video controversy, Shafi urged the community to stand against bigotry.

“I believe that we all have to work together to overcome racism and bigotry in our society,” Shafi told the Star-Telegram in a text message. “This includes parents, kids, schools, religious and social organizations, political parties, and elected officials. I am committed to working hard to create inclusive communities where everyone is welcome.”

Cornish said leaders on the local, state and national levels are condoning racism. She cautioned it is taking place in Southlake, where there is a lot of affluence and privilege, and children aren’t told ‘no’ by parents.

“They can say what they want and treat people the way that they want,” she said.

‘We want this to be a safe place’

Students and alumni don’t shy away from the calling out racist behavior in the district. The second video caused outrage when it was spotted by students Wednesday before dawn. In the morning, students alerted the district.

“People always talk about how Southlake is the best place to be and Southlake Carroll is the best school in the nation, but it’s hard to feel that way when I have been dealing with racism since I was 5 years old,” said an 18-year-old senior who didn’t want to be identified.

“Honestly I feel ashamed to go to this school,” the student told the Star-Telegram.

A 16-year-old sophomore, who also didn’t want her name published, said there should be consequences. Students in the video need to learn why the word is offensive to people and why it shouldn’t be used.

“Students think it’s OK until they get caught, when in reality they have no respect,” the sophomore said. “I think the consequences should be suspension and learning how to respect the word.”

Mana Singri, a 2017 graduate who saw the video on Twitter was also outraged.

“If something is happening I do feel an obligation to do something,” said Singri.

Luce, the former school board president, and others said students and school employees need training that delves deep into how privilege and racism affect bias and bigotry. Some want the district to add curriculum and learning opportunities that builds tolerance while teaching the histories of people of color.

“It’s time for cities and schools in Tarrant County to address this head on,” Luce said.

Carroll schools spokeswoman Julie Thannum said it was “disheartening” to hear the stories from students and parents.

“We want every student at Carroll ISD to feel good about being a Carroll Dragon,” Thannum said. “We want this to be a safe place for them physically and emotionally.”

The district’s strategic plan addresses the social and emotional well-being of students — not only people of color, but all groups that might be feeling isolated because of their experiences or because of how they’ve been treated by other students.

Part of the plan includes a leadership team made up of superintendent David Faltys, administrators, educators and coaches.

“We can’t change any past experiences but we can certainly learn from them, listen and move forward and enact some positive change,” Thannum said. “I truly believe in this district. We are seeing a lot of those things happen.”

Faltys and boys basketball coach Eric McDade, who the district is calling its “Culture Coach,” are visiting schools and have spoken to fifth-graders through seniors in the past six months.

She said the district heard from a number of families during a November school board meeting after the first video appeared in October.

“A lot of our minority parents came and spoke about their kids’ experiences,” she said. “We acknowledged that experience and that hurt. But, more than anything, we pledged to them that you have a leadership team that is committed to taking care of the whole child.”

But two-time Super Bowl champion Ray Crockett has lived in Southlake since 1990. He saw racism back then, when his kids were part of the school district.

Crockett played cornerback for 14 years for the Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions and the Kansas City Chiefs. His sons Ray Jr. and Darryl had problems at Carroll, he said, and his daughter transferred to Keller Central because she couldn’t take it anymore.

One particular tradition disturbed him: football players dyeing their hair blond during the playoffs.

“My wife got sent an email with the title, ‘We love our blonds,’” Crockett said. “Some of these kids, like mine, are not naturally blond. What kind of tradition is that? Why would you want a black [child] to dye their hair blond for the playoffs?”

Carroll schools by the numbers

Enrollment: 8,365

White: 64.89 percent

Asian: 17.8 percent

Hispanic/Latino: 9.88 percent

Two or more races: 5.08 percent

Black/African American: 2 percent

American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.22 percent

Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander: 0.13 percent

Staff writers Brian Gosset, Clarence Hill, Anna Tinsley and William Wilkerson contributed to this report.
Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

With my guide dog Barbara, I keep tabs on growth, economic development and other issues in Northeast Tarrant cities and other communities near Fort Worth. I’ve been a reporter at the Star-Telegram for 34 years.
Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.