When the national culture wars come to your school

Six students on what happened after their schools became flashpoints on masks, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, book banning and more

(Photos of, clockwise from top left, Philip Smith by Andi Rice; Pragnya Kaginele by Kaci Merriwether-Hawkins; Rio Colino by
Barbara Davidson;  Claire Warthen by Jovelle Tamayo; Jaxson Barrett by Sandy Huffaker; Renee Ellis by Raymond W. Holman Jr.)
(Photos of, clockwise from top left, Philip Smith by Andi Rice; Pragnya Kaginele by Kaci Merriwether-Hawkins; Rio Colino by
Barbara Davidson; Claire Warthen by Jovelle Tamayo; Jaxson Barrett by Sandy Huffaker; Renee Ellis by Raymond W. Holman Jr.)



A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Redondo Union High School student Rio Colino. The article has been corrected.

In communities across the country, schools have become crucibles of contentious social and political issues. Heated exchanges — over mask mandates, the content of books in classrooms and libraries, prayer at athletic events, critical race theory, LGBTQ rights and more — have erupted at school board meetings and played out in the glare of local and national media with images of parents shouting each other down or being dragged from raucous public meetings.

What is it like to be a student at a school that ends up at the center of controversy? Recently, we asked six high school students who attend such schools to share their perspectives on navigating the regular challenges of daily life — academic and social — together with those imposed by the broader culture wars as they come of age in this contentious era. (Interviews have been edited and condensed.)

The backstory of Carroll High School’s arrival in the media spotlight dates to 2018, when a video of White students shouting the n-word went viral, drawing national attention. Initially, the community — affluent Southlake, Tex. — responded with efforts at dialogue and racial reconciliation, including the formation of a diversity council that was tasked with creating a plan to address racism in the schools. When that plan was released in the summer of 2020, during the nation’s own racial reckoning, it met with fierce backlash. After candidates supported by conservative parents won majority control of the school board, the board killed the diversity council’s plan, moved to restrict the books students could access at school and installed donated “In God We Trust” signs prominently in the district’s schools — signs that a recent Texas law had required them to accept.

10th grade, Carroll High School, Southlake, Tex.

Before, when people would hear that I went to Southlake, it was kind of like, “Wow, you go to one of the best public schools in the nation.” Or, “You’re from this great area.” And there’s this whole “protecting the tradition” of being a Dragon, because a dragon is our mascot. So I was just always very proud to be a Dragon, proud to be someone from Southlake. And now it’s almost stigmatized to be from here. They have this idea of Southlake being a racist community and just being this kind of nut-job area.

I think there’s always been a hidden issue of racism and stuff like that; a few years back there was this thing of a few girls posting videos of themselves chanting the n-word. But it’s kind of been coming to light a lot now because there’s this conservative political action committee that’s been electing far-right people to our school boards, and that’s led to a lot of policies and a lot of open racism.

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Mostly it’s rejecting Southlake Anti-Racism, SARC, and there’s another organization called DATS, which is Dignity for All Texas Students, and organizations such as that. They’ve been rejecting attempts to try and get more anti-racism training for teachers, more non-Eurocentric education, more well-rounded education, and mental health [support]. Because people in this community, they’re afraid to learn things that don’t align with their worldview, and they just don’t want anything that can make them, directly or indirectly, look bad to be taught to children. There’s a fear of: They’re teaching White people to be guilty. Or, They’re teaching minorities to have victim complexes. It definitely was surprising to me when all this stuff was coming to light, and kind of disappointing.

The latest thing has been the whole “In God We Trust”-signs-in-the-schools thing. This conservative cellphone carrier, Patriot Mobile, donated the signs because now schools are mandated to put them up whenever they’re donated. So then a dad took signs to the next school board meeting that had “In God We Trust” but with LGBTQ symbolism and that said it in Arabic and other languages, and he tried to get those signs donated and hung up on school walls. It didn’t work out, but just seeing that kind of brought a smile to my face that there are people out there in this community who are trying to help us grow and progress. I think one of my favorite things he said, while the school board was shooting him down, was, “Why is more God not good?”

I honestly haven’t had too much of an issue with my friends because most of my friends have always been very open-minded. But my teachers will sometimes make little passing comments and stuff that’s like, Whoa, where did that come from? And I can’t remember exactly the event because there’s a lot of things that happened in Southlake that are newsworthy, but me and one of my friends were talking about something that happened, and I said, “I feel like White people in this district really have to start learning or else it’s going to be a really unsafe place.” And some guy who was walking behind me — I didn’t notice him before — he shoved into my shoulder, and he was like, “Hey, racist.” I just kind of ignored it because what am I going to do? Start a fight with a football player? I don’t know if he was a football player, but he’s some kind of athletic person.

I don’t feel like I’m ever going to be hate-crimed or anything like that. That’s not really a concern for me. There are people I feel are unsafe in this community, though. People in the LGBTQ community are much more likely to be bullied in our community. Racism mostly comes from either ignorance or misunderstanding or just systemic racism. But the anti-gay harassment is often just straight-up calling people slurs and stuff like that.

“Now it’s almost stigmatized to be from here. They have this idea of Southlake being a racist community.”

It’s stressful because, first of all, just being in high school, there’s academic pressure. And, I don’t know, the stress isn’t directly on me, but I think this racism and stuff like that just adds to the daily stress. It kind of makes me want to pursue, not exactly for a job, but pursue activism just in general because I can educate myself as much as I want to, as much as I can, but I want to be able to make change in more ways than just on my own individual level. I want to help educate my community, make change in my community.

I would want to tell them: When you break these barriers down, these walls that barricade you from learning so much and from understanding so much and from having so much empathy because you don’t want to feel bad or you don’t want to recognize somebody’s privilege, and if you have an open mind and stop being so defensive, you’ll just learn so much about yourself and your community — and just in general the world around you and what you could be doing to make it better.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, a diversity committee in Pennsylvania’s Central York School District created a list of resources — books, articles, videos — to help students and teachers grapple with issues around race and inclusion. In November 2020, the district’s school board voted unanimously to freeze the use in schools of all the resources on the list, many of which are told from the perspective of Black, Latino or gay children. In September 2021, students at Central York High School learned of the ban and began protests, sparking social media campaigns that were amplified by some of the authors whose books were on the banned list. The school board eventually relented. The students’ victory was covered by both The Post and the New York Times.

12th grade, Central York High School, York, Pa.

We found out about the book ban through a local newspaper. It was after school hours, and my sister came running downstairs. She ran to my grandparents’ room, and she was like, “You wouldn’t believe what’s happening.” I heard her sounding really upset, so I asked what happened. She was like, “Your school placed a book ban.” And she showed me the article. Our initial reaction was, of course, shock and disbelief. Because we were just going through school — this was like the first couple of weeks of school — and we weren’t aware that any of this was happening.

The article had a link [to] an entire spreadsheet of resources. I didn’t know every resource because it was 200-plus, 300-plus resources. But I do remember seeing authors and books that I read when I was in middle school. Part of the reason why I fell in love with reading so much is because teachers offered books that showed characters like me in them. So two of my favorite authors are Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas. And they write books like “The Hate U Give” and “Long Way Down,” “On the Come Up.” It meant so much to me as a middle-schooler to see characters like me and especially written in ways that don’t focus around trauma. I feel like a lot of times when people create literature about African Americans, it’s a lot of trauma, a lot of history, and it doesn’t really capture the beauty of our culture. And those authors, they talk about the realities that many African Americans face and the history — can’t deny that — but they also focus on our strengths, our culture, things that are important to us, ways that African Americans talk or certain things within our community that make sense to us. And being able to see that in books, I was like, I love this. But when I saw them on the list, it hurt.

“The Hate U Give” was on the list. I believe “On the Come Up” was on the list as well. So it was like, Wait, this is completely wrong.

Word got around on social media, so that weekend we created custom posters, and then that Monday we came to school and protested in front of our school building. At first, it was a little nerve-racking because you didn’t know how the community felt. You could sense a divide. I think all of America was divided, to be honest. Either Republican or Democrat, and it was a stiff divide. So we didn’t know if we were going to have counterprotesters. We didn’t know how people that lived around the school would feel. But there were no counterprotesters and no disturbances. We made sure that we were respectful and got all the permission that we needed, made sure that we did everything the best we knew to avoid any conflict. At first, it was 10 to 20 kids, but then, by the last day, we got to about 70 or 80 additional students and staff. We protested in the morning, but once school started, it was school time.

Because this was in the news and we were making headlines, parents and people at the community wanted to speak out on it. A lot of people supported us and said, “You should not have banned these books, and these students are stepping up and they’re trying to speak out. You should really listen to them and pay attention.” But you have some people who said we were anarchists, said that we were disrespecting good old American values and all that. That these books need to be banned and that it’s a safety thing. It got big enough where the community held their own protests.

Thankfully, adults realized that it’s probably bad if you attack children. So for us, personally, they didn’t do a lot of damage. They really went after our advisers. Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. When I found out, I felt almost a little guilty because it’s like, We’re speaking out and because we’re doing this, you guys are receiving the backlash, you guys are being hurt. But Mr. Hodge and Ms. Jackson, they did a really good job of trying not to put that burden on us. They handled it with so much grace.

“We might not be able to change who’s getting voted into the school board, but we can talk to the adults that are around us and advocate for ourselves and advocate for others.”

When our school board released a statement basically doubling down on their decision, saying that they won’t reverse it, we had to gather after school and say, “Okay, what do we do now? Do we still keep going?” They basically said that they don’t care and that they’re going to keep their decision the way that it is. So what do we do? And we decided to keep going. And because we kept going, it eventually got reversed.

The dynamics have shifted a little bit since the school board did reverse the ban. Now I see a lot more of the ignorant comments. But staying positive is really important. There are really good kids in our school, Black, White, Indian, Asian — it doesn’t matter who they are or what their race is. You do have a couple bad apples, and they seem to be a little louder than usual, but it just shows that we got to keep going. This is not one fixed issue. You can’t put a Band-Aid on racism. It just further shows me that we need better education and we really need those resources.

There’s a lot of people who want what they want in the schools, but trying to tune out all of the negativity, all the excessive pressure, is the best way, I feel, to handle it and to just do what I can because I am a minor. I can’t vote. I don’t pay taxes. Well, I pay taxes now because of my job. But my parents are the ones really putting money into the local governments. And so I just do what I can as a student. Talking to teachers and to administrators is huge — having a good relationship with the people who are teaching you and educating you. ’Cause we might not be able to change who’s getting voted into the school board, but we can talk to the adults that are around us and advocate for ourselves and advocate for others.

Obviously, the idea of having a book ban is not a good thing. You don’t want that, but I wouldn’t change anything. It exposed a lot of issues that we have in our community. It opened up a lot of great conversations, and it created this really beautiful way that we can speak out as students, and that our teachers are able to reach other educators and talk about something that’s hidden under the rug, things that people don’t really want to talk about.

One of the first of its kind in the nation, Magic City Acceptance Academy is a public charter school that aims to support all students in an LGBTQ-affirming environment. Denied a charter by the city of Birmingham, Ala., the school eventually opened its doors in the suburb of Homewood for the 2021 fall semester. Soon, it became a talking point in the Alabama gubernatorial campaign, when Republican candidate Tim James seized on photos of a drag show at MCAA and called the school “vile” and “evil.” Heckling and intimidation from the broader community followed, leading to greater security at the school.

12th grade, Magic City Acceptance Academy, Homewood, Ala.

I spent a lot of my schooling at religious private schools, and I was bullied fairly often for being different. I didn’t quite know who I was back then, but it was really crushing to hear the religious interpretation of why gay marriage is not accepted within the faith. I had my books stolen and taken from me by other students. It impacted me so much that I ended up not going to my own junior high graduation.

I remember the night my parents called me into their bedroom and talked about Magic City Acceptance Academy. They said, “There’s going to be a drawing. We’re not sure if you’re going to make it in because there’s probably a high demand for this sort of thing.” There ended up being enough space, and I have been [there] for a little over a year. I’m starting my senior year there. And I think Magic City Acceptance Academy has saved my life. It’s just been an amazing experience to be loved and accepted at a school like that. I think I’m lucky; a lot of people just don’t get opportunities like that.

When the school started out — on the tail end of the 2020 elections — we were always worried that something would happen. But we didn’t think it was going to be provoked by somebody like Tim James, who released a [campaign] ad with a picture of our drag show we put on with the words “Your tax dollars” printed underneath it. That was really scary because my classmates were in that photo. We had people drive up to our school and start yelling at students. It looked organized. It looked just very scary. It was to the point where my mother didn’t want me to drive to school; she wanted to see me get out and walk up to the doors. I think we were all very scared for at least a couple weeks after that happened.

There are a lot of targeted political ads and people just trying to do whatever they can to get elected. And, unfortunately, one of those things is cracking down on the LGBTQ community. Tim James said our school was a trans school, which is just an untruth. Our school is a safe space for everyone, even people who don’t identify with the LGBTQ spectrum. I think there’s a lot of conspiracy theories and just hate going around. They think that LGBTQ people have an agenda that they want to push on everybody else. That’s just not true. We’re just here trying to be ourselves. We want to be accepted.

“We had people drive up to our school and start yelling at students. It looked organized. It looked just very scary.”

My two best friends are trans men, and it was really difficult to hear about the trans legislation passing here in Alabama. I don’t think these lawmakers understand that there are a lot of trans youth that don’t make it to adulthood because they are denied the medication that they need. I think they don’t understand that being gay or being trans is something that’s just a part of you. It’s just who you are. They treat it like it’s not real. I would ask them to think about what it would be like if their son or daughter were trans or were a part of the LGBTQ community. I would want them to understand what it’s like to have somebody directly related to you attacked. I would want them to care about that child, just like they would any other kid. I think anyone, even if they have not been a parent, can relate to that and understand it.

I feel like when I first went to the school, there was a big feeling of hopelessness because we find ourselves in a red state. But I remember the day the political ad came out and scrolling through Twitter. I saw an overwhelming majority of people coming out and saying that we were loved and that Tim James was just another one of those people trying to attack our community. That gave me a lot of hope. The only way we can get out there and do something is by educating ourselves on these lawmakers who have made these anti-trans laws and anti-LGBTQ laws. By going to this school, over time, that feeling in the hallways of hopelessness sort of turned into a mission.

On Jan. 12, students staged a walkout at Redondo Union High School in the Los Angeles area to protest what they claimed were the school’s limited practices to mitigate the spread of covid-19 amid surging cases on campus. Students had used social media to quickly mobilize for the walkout, which was covered by the Los Angeles Times and Fox News, among other media. Like many schools at the time, in California and around the country, the community was deeply divided on the issue of wearing face masks.

11th grade, Redondo Union High School, Redondo Beach, Calif.

Winter of last year is when people really started to get, I guess, sick of the masks. I remember in my chemistry class one day, these two girls at my table were arguing over them, because one was wearing it under her nose and one was wearing an N95 and double-masking. I think they were kind of friendly before, but that really got them heated. After winter break, a bunch of kids at our school planned this walkout, trying to have school be closed again, because everyone had covid and a lot of people were worried about it. So then our school and the school board got involved. It was a big deal, and there were helicopters and news reporting about it.

Later, California schools lifted their mask mandate. So masks became optional. And then you’d have some kids wearing two-, three-layer masks and some kids not wearing them at all. It just felt so divided. And everyone just talked about it: “Why are you wearing your mask?” “You know you don’t have to anymore.” “It’s weird.” “Why aren’t you wearing a mask?” Everyone was super riled up. I mean, it definitely caused some issues in my friend group, because some kids would wear masks and some wouldn’t. We still all stayed together, but I know a bunch of groups did split up.

One of my classes had five kids one day because everyone had covid. And those five kids weren’t wearing their masks. It was so much different stuff happening. It was so overwhelming, I felt, because a lot of teachers started to get super open about their own beliefs about the masks, about a lot of issues that they hadn’t before. I had this teacher who got suspended earlier in the year; she doesn’t believe in covid, and she was anti-vaccine and telling girls all these crazy things that the vaccine makes your period blah, blah, blah. She wore these mesh masks, like holes, and American flags on them. Some teachers were super, super into masks, and some were like, “Covid is a scam.” It was pretty crazy. Redondo was wild last year.

“It was so overwhelming, I felt, because a lot of teachers started to get super open about their own beliefs about the masks, about a lot of issues that they hadn’t before.”

I honestly felt kind of desensitized to it after a little bit, because I haven’t had a normal high school experience. I mean, I started high school right in the pandemic. We didn’t even have a welcome orientation. We just, like, went onto a new Zoom, and it was just a bunch of different kids and different teachers in a different school. And so much had happened with the Black Lives Matter protests already, it just felt like another thing. The walkout was right after the Capitol riots, I remember, and there were a lot of political issues in our school — conservative vs. Democrat. So it just felt like: Another crazy thing is happening.

I feel, slowly, we’re getting back to having a normal high school experience. The other night I got to go to a football game without anything super crazy happening. I think everyone’s kind of chilled out. It’s nice to not constantly feel these pressures from your teachers sharing their beliefs. Or your friends. And obviously the walkout was super stressful because of the news. So it does feel like a big relief. But I think it all opened my eyes to see so many different people have so many different beliefs. And even if I don’t agree with them, not to think of them negatively or try to hurt them.

One morning in mid-February 2022, with a statewide mask mandate still in place for California’s public schools, Carlsbad High School junior Jaxson Barrett refused to wear his mask and was told to leave the building. He began sitting outside his school each day in protest; other students soon joined him. Barrett’s protest, which received local news coverage, ended on March 11, when California’s mask mandate expired. Barrett returned to class, unmasked, the next school day.

12th grade, Carlsbad High School, Carlsbad, Calif.

Obviously, I didn’t like [having to wear a mask] the whole year, but it probably got till, I’d say, February where I was kind of just over it and started thinking, “I don’t see a point of it anymore.” We could go everywhere else, no matter where it is, without having to wear a mask. So why do we have to wear one in school? Until Gavin Newsom says otherwise. And it was only for public schools. I know the private school that I went to sophomore year was not wearing masks last year at all.

A lot of students were over it and wanted something to change, but most of them just either were — I don’t want to say scared to do something about it, but just didn’t feel comfortable doing something about it. Or they didn’t want to sacrifice their grades and missing class. I just was like, “All right, I’m going to try and do something about it.” Because they’ve been saying stuff’s going to change; nothing’s changed. So one morning, I went into my first-period class and I said, “Hey, I’m going to exercise my First Amendment right: I’m not going to wear a mask in class today.” The teacher did seem kind of shocked. It wasn’t like a big scene or anything. I went up to him privately before class started. He didn’t really know what to say. He was like, “Okay, well you can’t be in the classroom without a mask, so you can go up to the office and try to deal with it up there.”

I went to the office; I told them what I was doing. They kind of seemed shocked at first and were pretty much like, “Okay. Well, sit outside for now and we’ll figure it out.” Apparently, they had to talk to the school superintendent and the district office about it, whether or not I’m allowed to be on campus then. So that whole day I sat outside by myself.

People would come by and, like, say stuff under their breath, but like loud enough where I could hear it. Nothing too crazy, where it’s personal or I’m going to get offended, just like, “Oh, this kid’s dumb,” and stuff like that. It was kind of awkward because everyone’s kind of looking.

The next day I came back, just immediately went outside. I didn’t even try to go to my classes because I knew that my teacher would send me to the office again. One of my assistant principals came out and told me that either I can go back to class or I can leave school. I was like, “Well, I want to be at school. I’m not trying to be truant or anything.” They said that if I didn’t go to class or leave school they were going to try and have me arrested for trespassing on school grounds. I think that was just kind of a threat to scare me because nothing ended up happening with that.

It was like 30 days. Yeah, it was a long time. I was just thinking, When is this going to end? How long do I have to do it? I definitely did think about just stopping and going back to class. It got to the point where, Yeah, I can stop, but I made it this far, and I didn’t want to just give up on it. I did have a lot of support, so that definitely helped. My parents, at first, they were kind of surprised and had questions, but after that, they were fully supportive. And I can’t think of any of my friends that didn’t support me. Or even if we do have disagreements, we don’t let it get in the way of our friendship. I had a lot of people saying they’re proud of me and stuff like that, some of my old coaches, pretty much all my family members, and then people that I didn’t know, parents from the area. And my dad’s a fireman, so I had a lot of fireman support, that community.

“I shouldn’t have had to do it in the first place, I don’t think. But it made me realize that if you want something to change, you stand up for it.”

I started having other kids out there with me. At one point I think there was up to 20 people sitting out with me. I know that the middle schools had up to 40. A lot of the other high schools in the following weeks, after my story got out, had a lot of school kids doing it. I think without that, I don’t think anything would’ve happened. As soon as we didn’t have to wear a mask in the classroom, I went back to class. I had some weird looks, but besides that, everything kind of just went back to normal.

I obviously wish the whole situation would never have had to happen. The main thing, looking back on it now, is how much it affected my grades, because a lot of the teachers didn’t let me make up the work that I missed. So I ended up failing four of my classes, which I made up in summer school.

I shouldn’t have had to do it in the first place, I don’t think. But it made me realize that if you want something to change, you stand up for it. And even if people are going to treat you differently or not like you as much, it doesn’t matter in the end. Especially in high school. Most of these people, you’ll probably only talk to five of them after you graduate anyways.

In 2008, Joseph Kennedy, a popular assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, began taking a knee and praying at the 50-yard line after games. The practice grew to include members of his team and then other coaches, players from the opposing team and community members. Bremerton football games started to see protesters — some arguing for the separation of church and state, others for religious freedom. The school district repeatedly asked Kennedy to stop. He refused and was put on administrative leave in 2015; his contract was not renewed the following year. Kennedy filed suit, and his case eventually reached the Supreme Court — which held in his favor in June. Though the district was required to offer him his job back, Kennedy has not yet returned to campus. His lawyers have indicated that he might return in 2023.

12th grade, Bremerton High School, Bremerton, Wash.

When the [Supreme Court] decision came out, I think I saw one news van trying to interview students, but most kids were like, “Whatever.” I think you had some kids posting on their Instagram, a “support” or a “I don’t agree with.” A little repost from Fox News or a repost from the New York Times. And then you could tell people’s personal political ideologies. That was about it. In all honesty, we’re just kind of like, “Why does it have to keep getting brought up?” We’re continually in the news about something that happened years ago, that gets shut down at every different court at the state level, and then finally the Supreme Court [rules] for Coach Kennedy. We have no connection to the coach. In 2015, I was a fourth- or fifth-grader. Doesn’t impact me. And all the people that it did impact are in college or have grown up and have jobs.

We’re more concerned with: Is the coach even coming back? Is he going to try and shift our football system again? That was on the top of our minds vs. who supports what, yada, yada, yada.

I remember hearing from people who were there in 2015, when the coach was protesting, that there were a lot of people — support groups and protest groups — that would come to the football games. You had your atheist group and you had your ultra-Christian group, and they would impact where the fans could cheer and whatnot. As [Associated Student Body] president now, I have to be concerned with: Is he going to try and come to our homecoming game? Because we’re having to think of possible things that could go wrong if a bunch of protesters decide to show up. I didn’t think I would have to think about that when I’m planning for a fun homecoming game, but here we are.

This issue for me is frustrating because this conservative court’s ideology paints our district in, some people might say, a bad light. Even if you support what he’s arguing for, for the most part, people in the community are just frustrated that our district continues to have to spend money for lawyers, money for court cases, for all of that. Instead of that money going back towards the students and the school.

“We’re having to think of possible things that could go wrong if a bunch of protesters decide to show up. I didn’t think I would have to think about that when I’m planning for a fun homecoming game.”

Most kids, we also tend to remain super neutral on a lot of political issues because it’s kind of hard to want to talk about broader issues when you can’t even feel connected at the school or are having a hard time just wanting to be at school or wanting to learn. And that’s something that covid kind of took away from us — not being in-person, you lose connections. And so we’re really focusing on how we bring up the sense of belonging and the traditions that we used to have.

My parents are like, “It’s your senior year, you should be loving it.” And I’m absolutely loving it but also just feeling a little bit of grief for the year that I lost. I’m trying to approach this year with a “I’m super excited,” but I’m leaving this community that I love and the school that I love and the people I love. And, maybe it’s just me as a senior, but it’s like you finally formed the connections, and then you’re leaving them.

KK Ottesen, whose most recent book is “Activists: Portraits of Courage,” is a regular contributor to the magazine

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