By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Oliver Lankford, an African-American father of two teen-agers attending Lancaster public schools, thought he was just making a political statement when he placed three small signs in his front yard. Lankford, upset with school Superintendent Billy J. Ward and the leniency he allegedly has shown white troublemakers in comparison with black students, agreed with the straightforward message of signs produced by local activists: "Bill Ward Must Go: He has divided our kids."
Little did Lankford know that this would open a window to the simmering racial distrust and anger coursing through this southern Dallas County suburb.
When Lankford returned from graduate classes that evening, he saw his signs had been pilfered. But the following evening, they were returned in a pile on his front lawn. On each, a response had been spray-painted in red.
"It's a black thing?"
"Damn, it feels good to be white."
The racial animosity being displayed in Lancaster came about, as many such community disputes do, because of an incident involving the combatants' children, the now infamous "shotgun incident." It was a seemingly typical school discipline decision that took on grave overtones, causing a racially polarized uproar that uncorked long-simmering distrust between white and black community leaders.
It began last September when two white seniors--one the son of a school board trustee--brought unloaded shotguns onto high school grounds yet only received five days of punishment. According to the district's own "zero tolerance" policy, they should have received one-year expulsions. No matter, said Superintendent Ward, who overturned the school principal's expulsion sentence. Judging the boys had no intent to harm anyone (they said the guns were accidentally left there after a hunting trip), Ward himself handed out the weeklong sentences.
Ward's clemency aroused suspicion and acrimony within the city's black community, which accused Ward of bias and hypocrisy. In many other instances, it was charged, black students committing far lesser transgressions were given harsher punishments.
Lankford, a five-year resident of Lancaster, says he's experienced such injustice firsthand. One time, he says his daughter forgot her middle school ID badge and was forced to spend a Saturday in a Breakfast Club-style in-school suspension. Lankford and his wife appealed to Ward for leniency, pointing to their daughter's good grades and honor-roll status, but no dice. "I feel he hates my kids personally and ethnically," he says today. (Ward, who defends his decision, refused an interview with the Dallas Observer.)
Lankford, a pharmacy technician and graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington who frequently speaks up at school board meetings, responded to the theft of his placards by pinning a large banner to his house with a more pointed message: "Billy Ward...must go: He hates our kids." And the hooligans who stole his signs? "It's a racist community," Lankford says of Lancaster, a growing suburb directly south of Dallas. "We're going to have to move those people out."
Of course, such racial friction isn't surprising in any school system. The Dallas Independent School District has long been a crucible of such discontent. But growing fractiousness in Lancaster sheds light on a little-noticed trend: heavy black middle- and lower-middle-class flight from Dallas to Lancaster and other southern Dallas County suburbs--including DeSoto, Duncanville, and Cedar Hill--during the '90s. "African-Americans who can afford to move readily do so," says Lee Alcorn, head of the Dallas-based Coalition for the Advancement of Civil Rights.
Yet upwardly mobile blacks in Lancaster believe they have encountered an old problem: discrimination of a sort to which they had grown unaccustomed. They say what is happening in Lancaster sheds light on an old problem in a new place: sleepy, prosperous southern Dallas County suburbs struggling with racial issues because of their booming minority populations. Blacks' complaints range from unfair disciplinary practices and too few black teachers and administrators to white teachers' refusal to adapt teaching styles to suit more active African-American boys. School officials deny such charges but otherwise decline to comment, blaming the media and African-American LISD trustee Carolyn Morris for stirring things up.
Some whites in Lancaster deem the issue bogus. "I think that there are some people on the school board trying to make it a racial issue," says Joe Johnson, director of Lancaster's Chamber of Commerce. But black leaders counter that many suburbs were built decades ago to dodge urban school desegregation, and some remain unreconstructed holdouts in a diversified America. "We have a long way to go," LISD trustee Morris says, "and that's kind of sad in 2001."
The Lancaster Independent School District's school board meeting in early January began harmoniously enough. In honor of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, an elementary school music teacher led children in singing verses of "The Dream of Martin Luther King" and "We Shall Overcome." On a back wall, a large-lettered sign heralded a mandate of the Texas school accountability system--which requires schools to raise test scores of each ethnic group rather than all students lumped together--as if it were a biblical commandment: "There should be no significant gap between any sub-group of students in LISD."