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Former Cowboy Russell Maryland is tackling racism in his children's Texas school district

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After winning three Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys, defensive tackle Russell Maryland felt at home in Texas and moved his family back to the Dallas suburb Southlake when he retired from the NFL in 2001.

However, when a video of white high schoolers from his local public high school chanting the n-word at a party went viral, Maryland realized that his community needed to do better.

All three of Maryland’s children have gone to school in the Carroll Independent School District (ISD). The district boasts some of the most affluent and high-performing public schools in the state — Carroll Senior High School has a 100% graduation rate and only 1.4% of students in the district are economically disadvantaged.

The school districts’ statistics also include a dramatic racial disparity. It is 63% white, which is more than double the statewide average, and only 2% African American. Maryland said that his daughter experienced the racism from other students in the district firsthand while she was attending Carroll Senior High School.

“My daughter and a couple of African-American friends of hers were in a classroom when a kid said, “Hey, I think I want to stab me some Black girls today,’” Maryland told USA TODAY Sports. “The administrators at the time handled it correctly and we had no further issues with that, but my family has been lucky.”

In the past, Maryland has been the celebrity face of Carroll ISD, helping to raise more than $300,000 for the district over a three-year period. After the viral video, he became the celebrity face of the fight against a culture of racism and homophobia in the public school system.

“I never thought that I would be the one in this fight,” Maryland said. “This has been stronger than any double team by the Washington Football Team or the New York Giants that I've ever faced. This has been a tough fight.”

Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Russell Maryland in action against the Philadelphia Eagles during the NFC divisional playoffs at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas, Jan. 7, 1996.
Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Russell Maryland in action against the Philadelphia Eagles during the NFC divisional playoffs at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas, Jan. 7, 1996.

The movement to improve diversity education in the district did not start out as difficult as it later became. Maryland was originally asked to be a part of an advisory board called the District Diversity Council in 2018 by a member of the school board whose son played with Maryland’s on the football team. He said the school board originally positioned itself as invested in improving the district’s culture.

“He made a heartfelt plea, so I thought at the time,” Maryland said. “He had tears in his eyes. My wife was there, and she said that, ‘There may be some backlash after we get this thing done; are you ready for that backlash?’ He nodded his head and said I’m ready.”

However, the board later reversed course after Maryland and the DDC submitted their Cultural Competence Action Plan (CCAP), which laid out objectives and strategies to improve diversity and inclusion in the district. The group spent 16 months developing the plan and first planned to introduce it in April 2020, but as of June 2021, it has still not been adopted by the school board.

The issue of diversity education and inclusion in Carroll ISD became a “political football” according to Maryland. Amid national racial justice movements following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, white parents in the school district began to complain about the DDC’s plan, associating it with other groups like Black Lives Matter and the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition, which was calling for larger changes to the school district than what the DDC proposed.

The CCAP was not the first time that white parents in Carroll ISD mobilized against minority inclusion. Maryland said that when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, there was a movement against having his inauguration speech played in the schools even though the speeches of several other past presidents from both political parties had been played.

As backlash continued, statewide and national groups got involved. The chairman of the Texas GOP publicly opposed the plan, and members of other conservative organizations including the Tea Party, the anti-LGBTQ+ group Southlake Families and a former spokesperson of the National Rifle Association also campaigned against the DDC.

“We’re just a microcosm of what I believe is happening on the national level,” Maryland said. “Over the last couple of years, people have become more emboldened to say racist things, to do racist things. It’s become political, and unfortunately, people suffer when things get politicized.”

The recent wave of legislation aimed at blocking critical race theory from being taught in K–12 schools is also creating new challenges for Maryland’s council and their plan. Texas governor Greg Abbott recently signed a new law that limits the ability of public school teachers to discuss systemic oppression or its historical implications, and it specifically bans the teaching of the New York Times’ 1619 Project.

OPINION: Critical race theory: My Texas public school sanitized history, facilitated injustice

JUST THE FAQS: From the military to classrooms, find out why critical race theory is causing a divide

Critical race theory is an advanced academic concept that is rarely taught outside of law school and post-secondary education, but basic action items in the CCAP like teaching students to recognize their implicit biases and stereotypes about minority groups may be considered banned topics under Texas’s law.

Maryland said although the broader political backlash is frustrating, he has been deeply hurt and surprised by the negative responses to the plan from his friends and community members.

“I’m most disappointed when people choose to stay quiet and not to advocate for my kids as I've advocated for theirs over two decades of my family being here,” he said. “I had a guy who I considered a friend, a good friend who I coach with, go before the school board to say this was a non-existent problem and we don’t have racism in Carroll ISD because these kids still do well on tests. It’s just baffling to me, some of the views and the outright lies.”

Currently, the status of the Cultural Competence Action Plan remains undetermined. When the DDC finally introduced the plan formally in August 2020, the school board voted to receive it rather than to approve it, so the council is stuck in a waiting game. Maryland said the board member who begged him to serve on the DDC voted against even receiving the plan. An attempt to involve the Department of Justice in mediation was ignored by the district.

“The next steps are just to keep fighting,” Maryland said. “I'm going to keep doing what I need to do in order to protect these kids, because I'm tired of the stories of kids coming back and saying, ‘Man, I wish I had somebody to fight for me. I wish I had had somebody to speak up for me at a time where I couldn't speak up for myself.’”

Contact Emily Adams at eaadams@gannett.com or on Twitter @eaadams6.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ex-Cowboy Russell Maryland is tackling racism in Texas school district