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."
On a superficial level, suburban comity still cloaks much of Lancaster, even as parents prepare to do battle.
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."
But most of the 100 or so adults present didn't come to break bread. Black parents and community members clustered on the left side of the room were there to vent furor. White board members, the majority of Lancaster's board of school trustees despite a burgeoning district enrollment of at least 70 percent African-American, offered no countercharges or explanations. Yet they retaliated passive-aggressively by brushing off the black parents' complaints like so much dandruff, judging their grievances not worth discussion, to be ignored or buried in lawyerly explanations.
Morris, one of two black trustees and a soft-spoken woman who roars at meetings, clutched a letter from the Texas Education Agency and excoriated her colleagues, especially Superintendent Ward. "This report shows there is no consideration for African-Americans," she exclaimed to murmurs of approval from fellow black parents and community members.
The contentious meeting came four months after Superintendent Ward overruled yearlong expulsions of the two seniors, including the son of school trustee Robert Stacks. Tonight, Stacks sat to Ward's right and said little. Stacks says a former student left the gun in his son's truck after a hunting trip. Black Lancaster didn't buy it. Earlier, state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat who is black, requested a state investigation into the reduced punishments.
In a report dated December 1, the Texas Education Agency dubbed Ward's move a "radical departure" from Lancaster ISD's published policies. But tough talk is all TEA dished out, since it lacks the authority to overrule local authorities in such cases.
Still, the report bolstered the determination of Lancaster's black community to topple Ward, whom they see as an arrogant and unfair disciplinarian, a good ol' boy who is not willing to acknowledge how much the city has changed in the past decade. Housing starts in Lancaster topped 500 last year, and city officials estimate census figures due out soon will show a doubling of the black population from 1990.
In Lancaster's schools, change is even more dramatic. The 4,000-strong district is about 70 percent black, up from 44 percent in 1993 (Hispanics, whites, and other groups fill out the remaining 30 percent). In Duncanville, change is also evident: The 10,000-student district counts about 4,100 black students and 1,900 Hispanic students, up from about 2,600 blacks and 1,000 Hispanics in 1993.
Conversely, DISD's black population is steadily shrinking. Since 1997, black enrollment in DISD has declined by about 6,000 students--from 64,230 to 57,963 of 161,595 students districtwide this year. The steady migration of well to-do blacks from DISD--and virtual abandonment by whites, who make up about 8 percent of district enrollment--occurs as the district's Hispanic population swells. Latino enrollment has nearly doubled from about 47,000 in 1990 to 88,000 this year.
Although middle-class blacks in Lancaster say they understand attitudes are slow to change, they feel an urgency to seek fairness for pride's sake. If something is not done now, they say, bigoted attitudes will prevail. Arvivian Roberts, a parent and longtime resident, sums up the bitter sentiment: "In the year 2001, it doesn't matter how hard you work, what you accomplish, we still don't want you near our children."
Some black Lancasterites say they consider the turmoil so unbearable that they have paid to put their kids back in DISD, while others do so illegally using false addresses. Those who are staying say their efforts at reform will eventually succeed.
"The school board is in a state of denial," says Vic Buchanon, Lancaster's sole black city council member. "People are saying enough is enough."
For now, Buchanon and his comrades are taking it to the streets. Or to the cul-de-sacs, which are more appropriate for this quiet suburb that's two-thirds pastureland. Anti-Ward yard signs have been planted in front yards all across Lancaster. Early-morning pickets have been staged in front of Lancaster High, Buchanon says, "just to draw some attention and let them know we're still here."
The placards may prove an ideal way to get the attention of Lancaster school officials, since even some school trustees have trouble communicating with the paid staff. At the January school board meeting, citizens witnessed Superintendent Ward attempt to embarrass trustee Morris, who has chastised Ward for failing to diversify school staff. Ward seemed to slight Morris when he took her written requests for information and placed them in the meeting agenda verbatim, bad grammar and all.
Morris had sought district criteria in reporting discipline data. A state audit found that Lancaster omitted discipline data pertaining to about 50 black students in a submission to the state, which officials insist was an oversight (TEA officials visited the district on February 6 to investigate). In writing, Morris demanded an explanation of how the district reported data relating to students sent to juvenile justice and alternative education programs "and how do this district come up with the amount of time that is spend."
Ward's decision to leave Morris' grammatical errors in the agenda appeared to highlight a deep hostility between the two leaders. In another part of her request, Morris had demanded an incorrect set of data, yet Ward never bothered to point Morris in the right direction before the meeting. "You did not call me," Morris told Ward. "You felt you did not have to communicate with me." In a remark intended for everyone present, Morris said, "I don't think Mr. Ward has a problem with anyone's request but my request."
At the meeting, Ward doesn't rebut that characterization. Despite piercing criticism from Morris and audience members, he says little, extending no olive branches and betraying no annoyance with facial expressions. The one time that Ward, a veteran educator who has served as Lancaster's superintendent for nearly a decade, speaks at length occurs early in the meeting, when he praises the district's new special-education director.
The trustees take a break to meet behind closed doors in executive session to discuss legal and personnel matters. "Consider Superintendent's Contract" is one of the to-dos listed on the agenda, which offers no further details. A possible buyout of Ward's contract, which extends to 2003 but must be renewed each year, was the subject of a story in the local weekly paper, which also reported that Ward has sold his house. Even though last week the board renewed all of its contracts except Ward's, board president Jo Carlin insists such talk is baseless.
During the intermission, several black parents voice dismay over the dispute. "If two kids fight, and the circumstances are similar, they should be punished similarly," says Dexter Simpson, a parent and president of Lancaster High's booster club. "What Ward needs to do is treat every child equally." Simpson is also upset that other board members aren't listening to Morris. "Stacks can ask questions, Morris cannot, without being accused of playing the race card," he says.
Sitting near Simpson is Sheryl Chism, a fourth-grade teacher in DISD who lives in Lancaster. "It's horrible," she says. "People are angry." Her main complaint: Mostly white teachers in Lancaster ISD "cannot teach in a diverse learning style." What does that mean? "You can't teach different types of students the same way," she says. "African-American boys are more energetic, talkative, and learn better in a cooperative style."
Unlike Dallas educators accustomed to multiculturalism, Chism says, Lancaster instructors don't try to harness African-American boys' energy to their benefit. Energetic boys are disciplined quickly and overly harshly, she says, and if two or more happen to scuffle in the halls, they often don't go to the vice principal's office, but court, where they receive criminal records. School police officers regularly write tickets for offenses such as disorderly conduct, Buchanon confirms.
When it happened to Chism's son after a scuffle with his best friend, she was called at work to come and get him. "I was terrified," she says. Remarking on what she deems "pettiness," Chism recalls an incident where a boy who brushed his hair was sent to the office. Her son was also ordered to remove his braids, which especially angered Chism. "You can't make my son look like a white boy," she says, fuming. The question she asks herself: "Should I remove my kids or fight?"
Such complaints elicit little sympathy from the board. "You've got to have discipline in the classroom," trustee James Parks says at the meeting.
But what floors Chism and others, prompting them to attend excruciatingly long school board meetings after work, is that the one time the district's tough, unyielding line was relaxed, it was for a white trustee's son and his friend. It's a circumstance that black leaders say they have witnessed many times. "When they use their discretion," Lee Alcorn says, "there's more latitude for white than black. If it's a black student, there's no latitude."
Perceived flexibility for some and not others at Lancaster ISD has become a rallying point for Lancaster's black community. Buchanon points out that before the shotgun brouhaha, both Superintendent Ward and trustee Stacks were steadfast defenders of the zero-tolerance policy, despite protests from Buchanon and others for a case-by-case approach.
Stacks, Buchanon says, repeatedly reasoned that granting one exception would prompt everyone else to seek a break. "He said that so many times I can barely count them on hands, and Mr. Ward, too," Buchanon says. Parents with children who have clashed with school authorities also charge hypocrisy. At the January board meeting, parent Arvivian Roberts refuted Ward's claim that no one had ever appealed a disciplinary sanction to him before the Stacks case.
Roberts, whose daughter received an eight-day suspension for fighting two years ago, told trustees Ward's claim was false, because she once sought an appeal. She recalls pleading with Ward to lighten her daughter's punishment on grounds she was defending herself and didn't provoke the fight. No appeal was heard, and her daughter served the time. "When we try to communicate with Mr. Ward, he turns a deaf ear," she says.
Buchanon cites several examples of long sentences given to black students for arguably lesser crimes than shotgun possession. Last February, a girl was suspended for 15 days because she had alcohol in her car. Shortly after the gun incident, the boy who turned the shotgun-toters in was himself suspended for 90 days and sent to an alternative school in another gun-related matter. His crime: fighting with another student and then pointing a toy gun at him.
Buchanon, who represented the toy heat-packer at a disciplinary hearing where he counseled leniency, insists he's not making excuses for troublemakers. Rather, he says, he's trying to put the matter in perspective. "I'm not condoning what this student did. He didn't do right," he says. "But these folks had real shotguns. You figure the only reason Matt Stacks got five days is why? Because he was the son of a trustee."
Livid over the shotgun episode, Morris on October 1 requested a TEA investigation. She alleged that discipline for weapons-possession crimes wasn't fair because of "preferential treatment for white students in comparison to disciplinary sanctions for black students." The allegation picked up speed on October 25, when Sen. West, a Democrat whose district covers much of southern Dallas County, asked TEA Commissioner Jim Nelson to conduct an inquest.
Staff from TEA's school governance and safe schools divisions visited Lancaster on November 1, conducting interviews and sifting through files. Later, they reported no evidence of black students receiving harsher discipline than their white peers but "found a departure from past district practices" in the repeal of the shotgun duo's yearlong expulsions.
The report includes a narrative of the gun incident. It begins on September 1, when Philip Casebolt, a Lancaster High assistant principal, found the weapons in two vehicles belonging to Robert Stacks' son and another boy, identified as "Jeff" in the report. The boys were soon charged with possession of illegal weapons on campus. Their parents were notified, and they were suspended pending an investigation.
On September 7, separate conferences were held with the two boys and their families. John Tucci, principal of Lancaster High, assigned both students to the county Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) for one year. That wasn't the end: On September 8, both students' parents appealed the punishments to a placement committee of district officials. They backed up the principal, but the leader of the panel disagreed.
Dwain Dawson, district director of personnel and the main district hearing officer chosen by the superintendent, counseled that the expulsions be shortened to one week, citing "poor judgment" on the part of the students. Oddly, he didn't recommend converting the expulsions to suspensions--they became miniexpulsions. Within hours, Ward ratified Dawson's recommendation and entered an order shrinking the boys' sentences. He even allowed the shotgun duo to make up missed schoolwork without penalty.
If Ward thought the incident would be forgotten in a week, he was wrong. Furor emanating from the black community was intense, and the TEA report was unsparing. It noted that the five-day sentence given to Jeff was incongruent with the boy's previous record of troublemaking. It turns out that in March 2000, Jeff committed a similar act and was sentenced to 90 days in JJAEP. Ward told TEA he wasn't aware of the prior offense, even though the agency's gumshoes easily located it in school records.
"A five-day 'expulsion' for Jeff [last name deleted], given his prior disciplinary record, appears to be in direct conflict with the Texas Education Agency's Safe Schools guidelines," said the report, which cited language in the district's Student Code of Conduct that contradicted the lighter punishment. It read: "Possession means being in control or possession of an item on the student's person, or in a car, locker, bag, or other article in the control of the student, regardless of the student's knowledge or intent to possess the item."
"In reviewing this incident," the report said, "and given the district policy on weapons, the Agency can find no other information that would support such a radical departure from the recommendation of a Placement Review Committee."
The report also said the district's board of trustees should have a final say on the matter, not the superintendent, since a placement panel--and not Dawson alone--heard the appeal. "It is the opinion of this office that all members of the committee, including the superintendent, are bound by the decision of the committee." In a page listing recommendations, TEA urged the board to take "expeditious" action to remedy "a critical precedent [that has] adversely impacted the district's student body in regard to discipline matters."
Trustee Stacks called the report "not reasonable" because the superintendent never ruled on an expulsion before. "So how can it be a radical departure?" he asked in a Dallas Morning News interview. He argued that revisiting his son's sentence would amount to "double jeopardy." Despite the TEA's report touting the primacy of the school board, Superintendent Ward's decision still stands.
The board did ask TEA for legal advice on whether altering the punishments after the fact would put it at risk of a lawsuit. At the January school board meeting, the district's lawyer made a convoluted presentation in which he argued that since Code of Conduct policies weren't codified in district bylaws, Ward's decision should stand.
The mostly black audience was outraged and grumbled in disapproval. One man charged that the board had jeopardized the safety of his kids. Another man, addressing the two black trustees, Morris and Edwin Kirkland, promised solidarity in the future: "We didn't know you all were dealing with so much down here, but now we know, and we are here to help."
One problem facing Ward's foes could be called the Suburban Complex: Since most middle-class families, black or white, move to the suburbs to escape big-city-style racial friction, many don't want to become involved in Lancaster ISD's current schism.
It's something that troubles four-term Councilman Buchanon, who is African-American. These days, when Buchanon demands that Ward resign, he takes pains to note he defended the superintendent five years ago, when several school board members tried to get Ward fired on "ridiculous" charges of malfeasance. This time, however, Buchanon says Ward has really screwed up. Interestingly, he also says the row over the shotgun punishments isn't primarily a racial issue. Buchanon, who owns an African-American-themed art gallery in the town's main shopping strip, says it is more simply about an official on a power trip."When an individual feels they have power over you," says Buchanon, "they are not compelled to concede anything."
The racial angle factors in, Buchanon says, when five-day shotgun punishments are contrasted with longer sentences for black students. The black community, he says, has never really challenged the school system because individual grievances have been addressed, diffusing community anger while leaving larger ogres running free. Local civil rights groups, including one he heads called Concerned Citizens of Lancaster, are largely inactive. "No one continued to keep those issues at the forefront, and they eventually died out," he says.
Now, he believes the shotgun episode has vividly dramatized the issue. Buchanon acknowledges that he has far to go in raising the consciousness of fellow black Lancasterites, many of whom still consider themselves Dallasites. Several times when Buchanon has gone door to door in get-out-the-vote drives, he says he's been shocked by the number of people who tell him they won't be voting in local elections; rather, they'll be voting at Dallas polls where, remarkably, they are still registered.
Buchanon recalls hearing, "'I gotta go to Dallas and vote for the arena. I want the Mavs to have somewhere nice to play.'" Lack of an emotional connection to Lancaster, Buchanon says, prevents residents from taking an active role in improving their community. "They still work in Dallas, they still have family there, they do their shopping there," he says. "By the time they get home to Lancaster, it's, 'Close my door, and it's time to relax.'"
These days, Buchanon says, the school's situation has more people interested in local affairs, yet not enough. "I don't see that has generally taken hold where people say I am a Lancasterite. It's 'What are you going to do,' not 'What can we do for help.'"
Buchanon, 47, whose upscale gallery displays images of everything from pastel street café scenes to portraits of Louis Armstrong and Malcolm X, has long been interested in the political arts, as well. He worked on his first political campaign at age 7 in Chicago to elect John F. Kennedy. Later, as a Rutgers University student, he served as statewide youth coordinator for the Carter campaign. Locally, he got his start at a council meeting when he spoke up to complain about a pothole-strewn road. Before long, he was appointed to a variety of boards. In 1994, he won election to the city council and is now its longest-serving member.
We go for a drive around Lancaster to look at the new housing developments. A few old farmhouses add small splashes of character to the dreadfully flat landscape. Like any other traditional suburb, the new brick-laden neighborhoods rising from former cow pastures and grain fields have English-sounding names such as Woodhaven Homes, Millcreek Estates, Ashmoore, and Saddlebrook Estates. Blacks are closing contracts on most of the new homes, Buchanon says, which average from $125,000 to $150,000.
Why Lancaster? It's close to southern Dallas, he says, and prices are lower than North Dallas County suburban developments. A new house in Lancaster or elsewhere in southern Dallas County, Buchanon says, costs $25,000 less than the same dwelling in Carrollton or Rowlett. City and DISD employees, professionals, nurses, accountants, and truckers are all new residents, he says, noting that he often hears the refrain, "You wouldn't believe the deal I got on this land."
Several private schools have opened to serve the growing population, he notes. "Most people would be surprised at the number of black kids going to private school." But Buchanon thinks school troubles are scaring away some home buyers. Passing Lancaster ISD headquarters, housed in what looks like a converted bank branch, Buchanon bemoans the total lack of diversity in top administrative positions. "When you walk in there, you won't see any faces of people of color," he says. Likewise, the teaching staff is about 80 percent white.
We stop at Lancaster City Hall, located in an old downtown retail area completely devastated by a 1994 tornado (and rebuilt and almost completely restored afterward). Working on a "State of the City" address in his office is Mayor Joe Tillotson, a longtime resident and tall older man who exudes small-town charm. He's upbeat about Lancaster's growth but worried about making up for a devastating loss of sales-tax revenue--40 percent of the city's general fund--that occurred when a large Southwestern Bell facility stopped shipping items from Lancaster.
A property-tax hike recovered one-third of that amount, but raises for city employees are still on hold. Still, Tillotson sees a bright future for Lancaster, pointing out its proximity to three interstates, an airport, and a rail line. A new library and recreation center are being built. Hearing Tillotson tell it, Lancaster seems like a completely different place than the one witnessed at the school board meeting, an open and welcome place.
He describes the influx of new black residents as "real class people," young people who are building "nice neighborhoods." It's estimated that Lancaster's population has grown to about 25,000 people, but blacks may make up 50 to 60 percent of that, doubling their 1990 numbers. Tillotson points out with pride that City Hall staff reflects the ethnic makeup of the town and says news coverage of the gun conflict distresses him because it casts Lancaster in a bad light.
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I ask Tillotson if the unceasing controversy worries him. "Yes," he says, "it does. It concerns me deeply."
He says he hasn't yet spoken out on it because he doesn't want to infringe on the school system's independence from City Hall. "I would feel insulted if the trustees told me how to do my job," he says. Like others perturbed by the shotgun strife, Tillotson says he has faith things will eventually right themselves. "Anything that detracts from Lancaster's image greatly concerns me. But I'm an optimist. I think good people will arrive at good conclusions. A temporary situation will resolve itself."
Asked whether the superintendent and the school board have handled the episode properly, Tillotson's carefully worded response implies that he thinks the case hasn't been handled with impartiality. But he holds open the hope that common ground can be reached after all, even in a polarized dispute that seems to defy resolution and compromise.
"When the board handles the situation with no bias, no prejudice," Tillotson says in a measured tone, "then we'll turn this thing around."