Some parents and students say racism is pervasive in Leander ISD and the district has done little to even acknowledge the problem.
During a May 16 board meeting, a number of attendees told the district’s board of trustees that its handling of a silent protest at the April board meeting was a symptom of a greater problem, and two students recounted years of racial-based discrimination and harassment as one board member visibly wiped away tears.
“I believe LISD has the ability be racially inclusive of all races,” Jared Breckenridge told the school board at its June 6 meeting. ”I believe you guys have the ability to be racially inclusive and non-racist with issues that are pertaining to students of color.”
Breckenridge, who is African American, said he is a student at Huston-Tillotson University and a member of the Austin Human Rights Commission.
He and several other speakers on June 6 told trustees and school district administration that they were frustrated not only by what they saw as an “impassive” and “dismissive” response by Vandegrift High School Principal Charlie Little to a widely-reported incident of a VHS student holding a promposal sign with a ‘slavery pun’ in April, but also by the district’s lack of a formal response to many in the community who have come forward at recent school board meetings to ask for action to be taken on racial issues within the district.
Breckenridge said his experience trying to deliver his message in recent months is indicative of the problems.
At Breckenridge’s first appearance before the board on April 18, the district’s director of security, Russell Bundy, called the police on him. After Breckenridge left the meeting, Cedar Park police and district staff questioned him in the parking lot for several minutes.
In a written statement this week, the district said it apologized for the events of the April 18 board meeting.
The statement, provided by LISD Chief Communications Officer Corey Ryan, said the district launched an Equity Task Force in recent months and also included a commitment to being “culturally responsive in instruction and school climate” in a recent update to its formal Learning Model.
“Leander ISD upholds a very specific, systemic approach to managing claims of discrimination by students, utilizing an intake form that is available online and through training of school administrative staff,” the statement said.
At the board’s April 18 meeting, Breckenridge came to speak to trustees and administration about the incident and to call for more action against the student.
He said he also took issue with the principal’s response and wanted to peacefully express his feelings on the matter. But because he arrived too late to sign up for the public comment period, Breckenridge never got to address the board.
Instead, he decided to sit in the front row of the public seating area, holding a neon green sign with a small hand-written message so that board members could see it.
“A slavery pun? I’m sorry, slavery was/is not a joke! I demand action against the student and the principal,” was the message Breckenridge said was on his sign.
In a written statement, Leander ISD confirmed Breckenridge sat with the sign in his lap for the entire time he was in the board meeting, in compliance with protocol for the meeting.
At 7:38 p.m. — just eight minutes after his arrival — Bundy called police. The timing of the call was corroborated by the Cedar Park Police Department’s incident report and LISD’s statement about the incident.
Official documents show Bundy initially told police the sign contained a racial slur, and the incident was tagged by the dispatcher as a Suspicious Person report. The Hill Country News has submitted an open records request for the audio recording of the call, but it has not yet been provided.
The words on his sign aren’t visible on the video of the April 18 meeting, though Breckenridge and several attendees said it did not contain any racial slur.
Breckenridge said he left the meeting at 8:42 p.m., saying he became uncomfortable with several individuals he did not recognize periodically staring at him for approximately 20 minutes from outside of the room through a window. He said he was later able to determine the individuals included Bundy and three Cedar Park police officers responding to Bundy’s call.
LISD Chief Communications Officer Corey Ryan said Bundy — a former school board member — had asked the police officers to speak with him about the situation, not for them to go and talk with Breckenridge.
When Breckenridge exited the meeting into a hallway, Bundy allegedly asked him if he was a student or had a student at the school. Breckenridge said he did not want to answer Bundy’s questions and asked the officers whether a disturbance call had been made about him.
He said the officer confirmed a disturbance call had not been made.
"I knew an injustice was occurring as soon as I saw those officers had been called," Breckenridge said. "I put no blame on the police officers. I think they treated me with respect. I would put all of the blame on the gentleman who called the police on me after only eight minutes of being present.”
Breckenridge said he has never received a call nor any other form of apology from Bundy or district staff.
He said Trustee Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia was the only school board member to reach out to him and apologize for how he was treated. He said he appreciated her statements, but was disappointed by the lack of response other officials.
“I feel that this shows my reason for being there on April 18 is substantial. I was supposed to be there because there’s work to be done in that district, especially for them to not take responsibility for their wrongdoing,” Breckenridge said. “It would have been different if I had been causing a disturbance, but the fact of the matter is I didn’t.”
The details of exactly what happened to Breckenridge at the April 18 board meeting have been the subject of varied rumors, some of which were addressed by commenters at the June 6 board meeting.
Contrary to some timelines cited about the incident, including what some commenters said at the recent board meeting, Breckenridge confirmed his interaction with the police only lasted 10 minutes and he was never detained.
Breckenridge said he asked the officer to walk him to his vehicle and Bundy followed them out into the parking lot. Breckenridge said he subsequently entered his vehicle and left.
In the two board meetings since that incident, a number of other commenters have addressed the board about the initial promposal, the principal’s response, the incident with Breckenridge, and what they said was a lack of any formal response by the district since that time.
As two Leander ISD students used the May 16 meeting to recount numerous incidents of discriminatory and harassing behavior they experienced from elementary school through high school in the district, board member Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia could be seen visibly wiping away tears.
Yet, those in attendance on June 6 said they were back, again, because the district still failed to issue any formal response.
“I’m here tonight — and once again — to address an issue that I think is of great concern within Leander ISD, and to remind you all that these things that have been spoken about over the last three months at your board meetings, where you have consistently had people from the community coming in and urging this board to take action,” Terry Barksdale told board members and district administration. “This is not a flash in the pan, these are urgent issues that deserve our attention.”
Barksdale is the head librarian at Austin Community College and is listed as an associate in the community college’s Office of Equity & Inclusion.
She went on to read part of a prepared statement that took issue with Little’s response to the promposal incident, in which they said student was not suspended and no significant disciplinary action was taken.
A Corpus Christi high school student was suspended from school after a similar incident earlier this year.
In its written response to the newspaper, the district said its Board of Trustees, administration, teachers, employees, students and volunteers adhere to a no-tolerance policy regarding harassment of any kind, including race-based harassment.
“Leander ISD upholds a very specific, systemic approach to managing claims of discrimination by students, utilizing an intake form that is available online and through training of school administrative staff,” LISD said in a written statement. “In addition to in-person reporting, the district utilizes reporting tools for students, parents, staff and community members, including Let’s Talk, Anonymous Alerts and Lighthouse.”
The district wrote that employees receive annual compliance training about harassment, including race-based harassment, and both the LISD Employee Handbook and Student Code of Conduct forbid harassment, including race-based harassment. Both documents also outline disciplinary action for violations in this area, up to and including termination for district staff.
In terms of recent efforts, the district highlighting adding “culturally responsive” as priority in its recently revisions of its Learning Model, training and work being conducted by its Teaching, Learning, and Leading team aimed at encouraging discourse and awareness about how race impacts peoples’ lives at school and the recent establishment of an Equity Task Force.
The catalyst for the recent protests and calls for action was a ‘promposal’ sign, shared on Snapchat, that said, “If I was black, I'd be picking cotton, but I'm white so I'm picking U 4 prom?”
VHS Principal Charlie Little initially sent a letter to parents characterizing the sign as “unacceptable,” and promising an investigation and disciplinary action in accordance with the district’s code of conduct.
“While inappropriate and disturbing, the student did not direct this unacceptable message at a particular individual with the intent to harass, bully or discriminate,” Little’s letter to parents read.
Members of the community who spoke to the board in May and said they felt Little’s statement “minimized” and “glossed over” the impact of the incident.
The district has not provided any public statement about the nature of the disciplinary action it took in response to the incident.
In May and June board meetings, members of the community told trustees that Little’s response to the incident — and further inaction from the district — showed that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
“It appeared from the last meeting that Leander ISD determined that racism is a non-issue,” Kellena Dunckley said at the June 6 meeting, calling for the district to implement diversity training for leadership and staff on a regular basis.
Reading from her written statement, Barksdale spoke about events at the May 16 board meeting.
“About 20 or 30 of us came… most of us moms, with valid concerns about the way (Breckenridge) had been treated, and about the way Leander ISD leadership had handled racism,” Barksdale read. “We held signs expressing our concerns and several of us got up to speak, voicing those concerns and suggested solutions.”
“Two brave high school students got up and shared horrific accounts of the racism that they have encountered as LISD students,” Barksdale continued, noting that the camera angle for the May 16 meeting was changed so that faces of public speakers were not visible on the live stream.
In its statement this week, the district admitted the meeting’s broadcast included camera angles recording from behind the speaker toward the Board members, which was a departure from other board recent meetings.
“Because the public comments agenda item is intended to focus on the message of the individual speaker, we use camera angles to limit the focus to the speaker and not the audience; however, that should not come at the expense of the speaker’s message,” LISD wrote. “In reviewing our procedures starting with the June 6 meeting, we updated our practice to ensure we capture speakers in public comments from the front unless there’s a technical issue with equipment or if the speaker uses hate speech or profanity.”
Continuing to read from her prepared statement, Barksdale spoke Little’s response to the citizens who spoke on May 16.
“Principal Little sat in the back of the audience, checking his phone, paying no attention to us,” she read. “Because he neglected to turn off the sound on this phone it loudly interrupted one of the speakers, making it clear he was busy watching videos.”
Barksdale acknowledged that Superintendent Dan Troxell went to speak privately with the students who spoke on May 16, she said the district failed to take any other action.
“(But) after the meeting, nothing happened,” Barksdale said. “There were no announcements of any systemic changes or advancement being made. Nothing. So I guess racism must not exist within Leander ISD. As a white person, I certainly don’t see it, so it must not exist, right?”
Addressing the board moments later, Dunckley called for specific action, including diversity and inclusion training for district leadership and staff.
“People who act in racist ways are often completely unaware that they are being racist,” Dunckley said. “They’ll find ways to justify their racist statements or racist acts while doing everything within their power to insist that whatever they’ve done or said has nothing to do with racism. In fact, they become very insulted if you call them racist. This kind of ignorance is widespread and anyone who says that diversity training is unnecessary is ignorant as well.
Dunckley told board members that in the corporate world, diversity and inclusion training is required on a regular and consistent basis.
“(It) is recognized as a necessity for a harmonious and harassment free work environment,” Dunckley said. “I am required to go to these trainings every single year, and every time I learn something new about myself. Oftentimes it’s not very pretty, but I am better for it.”
On June 5, Bundy wrote on Facebook that, “So called ‘Diversity trainings’ come and go but, LISD makes it very simple and clear how students and staff should treat each other with accountability. I have yet to find any other district that actually puts this in writing.”
Bundy’s post said the district’s 10 Ethical Principles have “stood the test of time” and the “Leander Way,” which sets behavioral expectations for staff and students are aimed at producing a “positive and productive citizens.”
He concluded his post by asking people to pray for district leadership as they search for a new superintendent.
In response to inquiries by Hill Country News, Bundy released the following statement:
“Inclusiveness and treating people correctly has been a part of the Leander ISD culture for decades, evident through our guiding documents and the work of our leaders. The post on Facebook was a private message to my friends to keep our district and school leaders in their thoughts and prayers. Leander ISD is not perfect, but our culture is rooted in a belief of treating people fairly and continuous improvement,” Bundy wrote.
Bundy’s statement did not address specific questions about why he had called the police on Breckenridge, why official reports say Bundy claimed the sign contained a racial slur, or what he meant by “So called ‘Diversity training’” in his Facebook post.
LISD’s response to the April 18 incident stated:
“The relationship between Leander ISD and our community thrives on constructive feedback, which helps us continuously improve our support for student academic and social growth,” LISD wrote. “We apologize for the events of the Board meeting. We reviewed and updated our meeting and law enforcement procedures to ensure we host a safe and respectful environment for open government.”
Ryan said the new policy dictates that unless there is an imminent threat to safety, additional administrators or the board need to be consulted before a staff member calls the police during a board meeting.
Ryan also said the Director of Security position is new — created approximately a year ago — to coordinate school communication for the numerous police departments that have jurisdiction over the areas where LISD schools are located, and to coordinate communications for the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. The position also involves working on the district’s building safety assessments and safety training protocols.
Ryan said Bundy brings law enforcement experience to the position, including experience with the Texas Department of Public Safety as a police officer at Austin Community College.
When asked whether any disciplinary action was being considered against Bundy, Ryan declined to comment, stating disciplinary discussion or actions are confidential.
Speaking at the May 16 board meeting, two female students told board members they had been subjected to repeated incidents of racism harassment as students in the district.
Leander High School student Bri Branscomb, who was one of the students who initially reported the promposal incident, said racism is “ingrained in Leander Independent School District,” and that the promposal incident at her school is not an incident.
“Deep-rooted racial issues… exist in our community,” Branscomb said, as she told trustees that he had been subjected to incidents ranging from name calling and racial slurs to having garbage dumped on her head and being told that she shouldn’t even exist.
“Last year, two classmates discussed how, were I a slave, I would have been whipped, beaten and tortured as a result of my ‘naturally sassy attitude,’” Branscomb said. “They were never corrected.”
Branscomb told board members that none of the numerous students or staff members who had made racially-charged, insensitive, or harassing remarks had ever been subject to punishment. She said none of the district staff were ever disciplined, and they ever apologized.
“My humanity has been disregarded for the sake of a joke,” Branscomb said. “It was never funny.”
Still, Branscomb said the behavior is not representative of what Leander ISD could be, or should be, and urged trustees to implement sensitivity training for district employees.
“What needs to change is the district’s approach,” she said. “It’s not going to go away if it continues to be ignored.”
When asked by the Hill Country News what the district has done recently to address racial discrimination and harassment, the district cited the recent establishment of an Equity Task Force, which held its first meeting last October, and the inclusion of “cultural responsiveness” as a commitment in its Learning Model.
Last August, the district completed a year-long update its Learning Model — a guiding document aligning the beliefs, practices, and support systems for teaching and learning. One of the updates was a commitment to being “culturally responsive” in the school’s instruction and school climate.
In its response to the Hill Country News’ inquiries, Ryan provided information that said LISD has approximately 40 members of its ‘Teaching, Learning and Leading’ team participating as group in professional learning around cultural responsiveness, including a book study of “Courageous Conversations about Race,” by speaker Glenn Singleton, attending training sessions recently that were led by Singleton in Houston, and launching an Equity Task Force last fall to focus student success conversations around race, gender, and equity learning. The Task Force meets on a monthly basis.
Ryan said the team includes principals, assistant principals, district leaders, campus leaders and department leaders from throughout LISD.
Tiffany Spicer, a former Leander High School principal currently serving in a senior administration role, and Area Superintendent Laurelyn Arterbury both serve on the Equity Task Force and are Teaching, Learning and Leading team members. The district said they and other members have spent the last school year learning about cultural responsiveness, gathering information and having conversations about how race, sex, religious identity and other issues can impact people’s lives.
“Racism in general is horrible. Being a woman of color, I’ve experienced things in my life,” Spicer said. “My children have, too… And I know as a mother, as an educator, as a member of Leander ISD, we do not take racism lightly nor concerns brought to our attention lightly. Our goal is to make every student in our district feel welcomed, valued, appreciated and heard.”
Spicer and Arterbury said the leadership team is not meeting over the summer break, but they plan to return and start plotting out their actions for the next three years, including finding ways to implement what they have learned in their own classrooms and possibly drafting policy suggestions down the road.
“We’ve grown from a one high school town to a six high school town. There’s talk of a seventh,” Arterbury said. “We know we’re growing and with that growth comes change, new learning and opportunities.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the Board of Trustees to decide if any additional departments will be added, and to set out plans for any district-wide policy changes.
Ryan said the first actionable item to come out of the team and Task Force discussions will be a proposal to provide funding to send additional administrators and board members to a ‘Beyond Diversity’ training course in 2019-20.
“It’s heart-wrenching to hear stories of students who have been discriminated against. And we heard some of those at one of our recent board meetings,” Ryan said. “But I do think there’s countless examples of teachers and principals and our caring support staff who have gone above and beyond for students in dealing with these situations.”
Ryan said the ‘Beyond Diversity’ training takes a more systemic approach in its conversations about race in a school setting. He said the item will be considered as a part of ongoing budget discussions this month.
Kellena Dunckley said she and other LISD parents still want to work with the district to improve its response to issues of racism and encourage community conversations and awareness about the problem of racism.
She said her group is seeking specific actions by the district, and asked trustees to:
She said her group appreciates recent incidents of outreach by school officials, including Troxell’s speaking with the two students at the May 16 board meeting.
However, Dunckley said the attendance during the June 6 board meeting was primarily driven by what she and others consider the district’s “woefully inadequate” response in the wake of a school staff member calling police on a protester during the April 18 Board meeting, and controversy over how cameras were angled to avoid showing speakers’ during the May 16 meeting.
In its statement, LISD apologized for the April 18 incident and stated it has made policy changes in the wake of the April 18 and May 16 meetings.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Bri Branscomb is a Leander High School student.