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Appeals court blocks Texas from investigating trans kids & families

“Texas PFLAG families are grateful the court has once again recognized the harm caused by investigating parents for loving their trans kids”

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Trans Allies & Advocates in Texas gather on the Capitol grounds in Austin. (Photo Credit: Equality Texas)

AUSTIN, Texas — On Friday the Texas Court of Appeals, Third District, upheld injunctions in two related cases against the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) barring the DFPS from implementing the agency’s rule expanding the definition of child abuse to presumptively treat the provision of gender-affirming care as child abuse.

The injunctions bar DFPS from implementing the rule by investigating these families based solely on allegations that they are providing gender-affirming care to their adolescents, or taking any action in open investigations other than to close them so long DFPS can do so without making further contact with the families.

Today’s ruling came in two lawsuits, Doe v. Abbott and PFLAG v. Abbott, filed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union Jon L. Stryker and Slobodan Randjelović LGBTQ & HIV Project, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, and the law firm of Baker Botts LLP.

“Texas PFLAG families are grateful that the court has once again recognized the harm caused by investigating parents for affirming and loving their transgender kids,” said Brian K. Bond, CEO of PFLAG National. “PFLAG National and our members and supporters will continue leading with love, just as we’ve done for the last 51 years, because when courageous love takes action, our families are stronger, our communities are safer, and our LGBTQ+ loved ones across races, places, and genders thrive.”

In September of 2022, the Travis County District Court issued a third injunction blocking the State of Texas from implementing a directive issued by Republican Governor Greg Abbott that targets trans youth and their families across Texas.

The directive ordered the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate parents who work with medical professionals to provide their adolescent transgender children with medically necessary healthcare.

The directive could have led to transgender youth being placed in foster care and their parents criminally charged with child abuse—just for following the advice of their physicians and mental health providers.

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“We are gratified that the Court upheld the district court’s injunctions protecting families of transgender young people across the state from unlawful investigations under the DFPS rule,” said Paul D. Castillo, senior counsel, Lambda Legal. “The Court recognized yet again that being subjected to an unlawful and unwarranted investigation causes irreparable harm for these families who are doing nothing more than caring for and affirming their children and seeking the best course of care for them in consultation with their medical providers.”

“Transgender youth have always existed and always will, and the vast majority of Texans do not support separating them from their families or taking away their life-saving health care,” said Ash Hall, LGBTQ+ policy and advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Texas. “The maneuvers by Texas state officials against transgender youth are bullying masquerading as policy. Nothing could be further from abuse than parents loving and supporting their transgender children. This decision is another much-needed victory for trans youth and those who love and support them.”

“We are grateful the court saw through this dangerous and transparently discriminatory action by Texas officials,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. “Our clients and countless families like theirs are guided by love and compassion for their transgender youth, following the guidance of their doctors and fighting for the futures their family deserves. These baseless and invasive investigations are a dangerous abuse of the state’s power and one we’re thankful the Texas courts have consistently ruled against.”

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Texas

Texas school superintendent suspended over trans actor’s removal

He was suspended in connection with the investigation into efforts to remove a trans senior from the school’s production of Oklahoma!

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Senior Max Hightower has participated in the high school’s Bearcat Theater since he was a freshman. (Photo Credit: Screenshot/KXII CBS 12)

By Tammye Nash | SHERMAN, Texas – The Sherman Independent School District Board of Trustees, following a closed session meeting on Friday, March 8, has voted to suspend Superintendent Tyson Bennett.

Meghan Cone, the school district’s chief communications officer, confirmed Tuesday, March 12, that Bennett was suspended in connection with the investigation into Bennett’s efforts to remove transgender senior Max Hightower from the school’s production of Oklahoma! Cone said the SISD board had not made nor provided a statement following the vote.

Philip Hightower, Max’s father, said today he is “thrilled that the board made the right decision to protect our kids from discrimination. I’m thrilled Max and the rest can be safe, and I’m proud that our community united and said no to transphobia.”

The board suspended Bennett with pay and appointed Deputy Superintendent Thomas O’Neal as acting superintendent, effective immediately.

The Sherman ISD Board of Trustees has voted to suspend the district’s superintendent, Tyson Bennett.

Gordy Carmona, North Texas community engagement and advocacy strategist for Equality Texas, was among those who spoke at the November board meeting where SISD trustees reversed Bennett’s decision to cancel and recast the play. “Hearing Sherman ISD’s decision to recast the Oklahoma! production last year based on a district rule barring students from playing roles that didn’t match their gender assigned at birth was alarming,” Carmona told Dallas Voice today. “Theatre is supposed to be one of the few safe havens for LGBTQIA+ students.

“Thankfully Sherman ISD listened to students, parents and community members concerns,” they continued, “Their reinstatement of the original cast was the first step in correcting some concerning problems within the district. News of the unanimous decision to suspend Superintendent Tyson Bennett was a welcomed surprise, but there is still room for growth in ensuring current and future LGBTQIA+ students can feel fully supported by their district.”

The controversy over the high school play began last October when the high school principal, at Bennett’s direction, contacted parents and students to tell them the planned production was being cancelled. That notification came after Max Hightower was cast in the male role of Aly Hakim, a major character in the play. Several female students were cast in male roles, as well.

In a confusing statement issued Nov. 6, district officials explained that Sherman ISD had no policy regarding how students are cast, except in this one instance and maybe in the future, but then again maybe not: “There is no policy on how students are assigned to roles. As it relates to this particular production, the sex of the role as identified in the script will be used when casting.” A second statement, issued by the district on Nov. 10 supposedly was intended to clear up confusion but really only muddied the waters further.

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Bennett’s decision was that for the production to go on after the first of the year, later than originally planned, the show would have to be recast, and he wanted the school’s theater teachers to instead stage a version of the play rewritten for younger students.

But following a marathon board meeting later that month, in which dozens of parents, students and other community members turned out to criticize Bennett and his directives, the Sherman ISD board voted to rescind the directives completely and allow the production to go on as originally cast. The board at that time also removed Bennett’s authority over the school’s fine arts programs and announced an ongoing investigation into the situation.

Sherman High School staged its production of Oklahoma! in January with the original cast, including Max Hightower, in place.

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Tammye Nash
Managing Editor

Nash has been a professional journalist since 1982, and first began working for Dallas Voice in 1988, just four years after the paper was founded. She has worked at both weekly and daily newspapers over the years, but has always worked for community newspapers where the focus is on serving and improving the community you serve.

Nash has won numerous awards over the years for her work, and enjoys working with the other award-winning journalists at Dallas Voice who are as dedicated to the LGBTQ community as she is. Nash lives in Fort Worth with her partner of nearly 20 years, their two sons and their menagerie of pets. She spends her free time on her hobby of photography.

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The preceding article was previously by the Dallas Voice and is republished with permission.

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Lawmaker who split with party on LGBTQ+ votes forced into runoff

Thierry angered fellow Democrats because of a speech she gave on the House floor in support of banning gender-transitioning care for minors

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Shawn Thierry and Lauren Ashley Simmons. (Photo Credit: Thomas Meredith for The Texas Tribune and Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune)

By Zach Despart | HOUSTON, Texas – Rep. Shawn Thierry, the Houston Democrat who had angered her party by siding with Republicans on bills opposed by the LGBTQ+ community last year, has been forced into a primary runoff with labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons.

With no Republican candidates in the heavily Democratic district, which covers a swath of south Houston anchored by the majority-Black neighborhood of Sunnyside, the winner of the May 28th runoff race is virtually guaranteed to hold the House seat.

The race became a referendum on whether Democrats can remain in good standing with the party if they are not fully supportive of the LGBTQ+ community. Thierry cast two votes opposed by gay and transgender advocacy groups: one restricting certain books at school libraries that led to fears of discrimination about LGBTQ literature and another that banned gender-transitioning care for minors.

While a few other Democrats also supported those bills, Thierry was by far the most vocal in her support. She gave a floor speech in support of the transgender-care bill that shocked fellow Democrats and won her praise from Republicans.

House Democrats also said they were disappointed Thierry did not join their fight to weaken the bills, which could pass in the Republican-controlled Legislature without any Democratic support. On the gender-transitioning care bill, Thierry skipped the votes on all 18 amendments her Democratic colleagues offered.

Thierry said her votes were in line with Black voters in her district who are more socially conservative than white progressives, and who she said represent only a sliver of Democrats. Detractors, including other House Democrats, said the party needs to be united in its commitment to protect LGBTQ+ rights and protect vulnerable Texans.

TEXAS HOUSE DISTRICT 146

Democrat

MAJORITY OF RESULTS HAVE COME IN

An estimated 99% of votes have been counted, according to the Associated Press. No projected nominee has been called yet.

CANDIDATESVOTESPCT.
DLauren Ashley Simmons6,25549.5%
DShawn Nicole Thierry Incumbent5,60844.4
DAshton P. Woods7666.1

Source: Associated Press

Republican

THIS RACE IS UNCONTESTED.

CANDIDATESVOTESPCT.
RLance York—%

Source: Associated Press

See results here: (Link)

Thierry’s opponents coalesced around Simmons, who said residents asked her to run after a video of her criticizing the state takeover of Houston ISD exploded in popularity online. Simmons, who has two children in the district, said she worried Thierry was not sufficiently supportive of public education.

Simmons secured some of the marquee endorsements in the race, including labor unions, Planned Parenthood and the influential Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus. Democratic Reps. Jessica González, Julie Johnson and Ana-Maria Ramos, backed her, while Barbara Gervin-Hawkins and Nicole Collier endorsed Thierry.

Thierry’s small-dollar donations largely dried up and her reelection campaign relied heavily on wealthy Republican donors. Her contributions included $10,000 from Doug Deason, a conservative activist, and $15,000 from his pro-school voucher Family Empowerment Coalition PAC.

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Zach Despart’s staff photo

Zach Despart is a politics reporter for The Texas Tribune. He investigates power — who wields it, how and to what ends — through the lens of Texas government. He has extensively covered the Uvalde school shooting, including a groundbreaking investigation on the role the gunman’s rifle played in the disastrous police response. He previously covered Harris County for the Houston Chronicle, where he reported on corruption, elections, disaster preparedness and the region’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey. An upstate New York native, he received his bachelor’s degree in political science and film from the University of Vermont.

The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

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Texas AG’s effort to persecute families of trans youth blocked

PFLAG received demands from Paxton to turn over documents, communications, & info related to its work helping families with trans adolescents

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Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse. Austin, Texas. (Photo Credit: Travis County Texas government)

AUSTIN, Texas – Travis County District Court Judge Maria Cantú Hexsel today blocked the latest effort by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to persecute Texas families with transgender youth, temporarily halting the Attorney General’s demand that PFLAG, Inc. turn over information and documents about its support of families in Texas seeking gender-affirming medical care for their transgender youth.

PFLAG National, a nonprofit group that supports LGBTQ people and their families, sued the Republican Texas Attorney General late Wednesday in Travis County District Court, arguing that the demand from Paxton’s office was “a clear and unmistakable overreach.”

Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the ACLU, and Transgender Law Center, who filed a new lawsuit on behalf of PFLAG National and requested a temporary restraining order against the Attorney General’s investigative demands on Wednesday evening, issued the following joint statement:

We’re grateful that the Court saw the harm the Attorney General’s Office’s intrusive demands posed for PFLAG National and its Texas members — and is protecting them from having to respond while we continue to litigate the legality of the office’s requests. We now will return to court to seek an extended and ultimately permanent block so that PFLAG can continue supporting its Texas members with transgender youth in doing what all loving parents do: supporting and caring for their children.”

On February 9, PFLAG National received civil demands from the Attorney General’s Office to turn over documents, communications, and information related to PFLAG National and the organization’s work helping families with transgender adolescents.

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PFLAG National is a plaintiff in two lawsuits filed against restrictions on gender-affirming medical care for adolescents in Texas: one lawsuit Loe v. Texas, challenging S.B. 14, the state’s ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors, and PFLAG v. Abbott, challenging the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services’ (DFPS) rule mandating investigations of parents who work with medical professionals to provide their adolescent transgender children with medically necessary healthcare.

Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the ACLU, Transgender Law Center, and the law firm Arnold & Porter represent PFLAG, Inc. in this newly filed case.

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Texas AG: PFLAG must provide names, details of trans members

On Thursday, a legal filing by PFLAG National revealed that Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas was seeking identification of trans members

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaking with Republican voters in 2023. (Photo Credit: Office of the Attorney General/Facebook)

By Erin Reed | AUSTIN, Texas – In a legal filing Thursday, PFLAG National sought to block a new demand from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that would require the organization to identify its Texas transgender members, doctors who work with them, and contingency plans for anti-transgender legislation in the state.

Paxton’s civil investigative demand, issued on Feb. 5, calls for extensive identifying information and records from the LGBTQ+ rights organization. PFLAG, in its filing to block the demands, describes them as “retaliation” for its opposition to anti-transgender laws in the state and alleges that they violate the freedom of speech and association protections afforded by the United States and Texas constitutions.

The demands are extensive. The letter to PFLAG National demands “unredacted” information around claims made by Brian Bond, PFLAG’s Chief Executive Officer, in a legal fight against the ban on gender-affirming care in the state. Bond’s claims highlighted that PFLAG represents 1,500 members in Texas, many of whom are seeking contingency plans if SB14, the ban on gender-affirming care, takes effect.

Per the lawsuit, PFLAG National states that it would be required to disclose Texas trans youth members, including “complete names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, jobs, home addresses, telephone numbers, [and] email addresses.” It also states they would need to hand over documents and communications related to their medical care, hospitals outside the state, and “contingency plans” discussed among members for navigating the new laws on gender-affirming care in Texas.

You can see see some of the questions asked in the civil investigative demand here:

Demand for full information.
Demands that include substantiation of claims by Brian Bond, CEO of PFLAG National; these claims include the existence of 1,500 families in Texas.
Demands that include contingency plans on going out of state or moving.

The demands also encompass communications with out-of-state healthcare organizations, including QMed in Georgia, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and Plume. Previous reports have revealed similar civil investigative demands issued to these out-of-state healthcare providers, seeking information on all patients from Texas who have received their gender-affirming care in Washington State at Seattle Children’s Hospitals. Seattle Children’s Hospital, in a legal response, argued that such care, conducted entirely within the state of Washington, falls outside Texas’s jurisdiction. It further contended that Washington has a shield law prohibiting the sharing of protected private information related to transgender and abortion care with out-of-state entities. That lawsuit is still ongoing.

This is not the first attempt by Attorney General Ken Paxton to identify transgender people in the state. The filing points to a previous attempt to “compile a list of individuals who had changed their their gender” on Texas driver’s licenses. This is part of a “pattern of seeking identifying information about anyone who is transgender in Texas,” according to the filing.

PFLAG National alleges that the demands are an “overly broad, unreasonably burdensome fishing expedition” that violates its member’s rights to freedom of petition, association, speech, and assembly.

It also alleges that they are a violation of prohibitions on unjustified searches and seizures, and that the use of civil investigative demands are an attempt to get around judicial decisions that have blocked Paxton from making similar requests in ongoing court fights. The organization also alleges retaliation for standing up for transgender families in the state.

“These Demands are a clear and unmistakable overreach by the OAG in retaliation for PFLAG successfully standing up for its members, who include Texas transgender youth and their families, against the OAG’s, the Attorney General’s, and the State of Texas’s relentless campaign to persecute Texas trans youth and their loving parents,” the filing reads.

In an interview with Mandy Giles, founder of Parents of Trans Youth and former PFLAG Houston president, she concurs with the allegation of retaliation, stating, “Paxton would retaliate against PFLAG… the families can’t defend themselves. They are too scared to be visible. They can’t fight back, they can’t fight for their kids, they can’t fight for themselves, or their trans loved ones. When PFLAG stepped up to help, it was a saving grace. To have them be attacked this way feels like we all are getting attacked.”

When asked about the specific demands for contingency plans, she paused to collect herself, stating, “This is the families worst fear… that something that was offered to them for protection could come back and hurt them…. the nerve of Paxton asking for families escape plans when he was the reason they were escaping.”

Sadie Hernandez, communications manager for Transgender Education Network of Texas, stated that while Paxton was targeting transgender people now, the methods overlap with other fights in the state for reproductive healthcare and bodily autonomy. “The way they are coming after trans folks has been seen in the way they are going after abortion rights. We have an idea of what is in their playbook.”

She also emphasized the unique impacts these enforcement efforts have on marginalized communities within the trans community, such as undocumented immigrants, “When we talk about folks disproportionately impacted, immigrant and undocumented trans folks who can’t leave the state, or if you are in a border checkpoint can’t even leave the area to receive any kind of gender-affirming care…there will be a lot of folks left out of being able to access care.”

Responding to the Lawsuit, Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Director of Constitutional Law Practice Karen Loewy stated, “The Attorney General’s demand of PFLAG National is just another attempt to scare Texas families with transgender adolescents into abandoning their rights and smacks of retaliation against PFLAG National for standing up for those families against the State’s persecution.But PFLAG members’ rights to join together for mutual support, community, and encouragement are strong and we will fight to protect them.”

PFLAG National is represented in the case by Lambda Legal, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas, The Transgender Law Center, and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.

The Transgender Education Network of Texas provided several funds that they work with, including the Frontera FundFund Texas ChoiceTEA FundAvow, and Lilith Fund.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

The preceding post was previously published at Erin in the Morning and is republished with permission.

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Texas High School cancels play about Matthew Shepard

“As a queer student in this show, I’m livid it’s been cancelled not once, but 2X. People in KISD should not have the right to discriminate”

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A Timber Creek High School theatre production dress rehearsal. (File Photo Credit: Timber Creek High School - Keller ISD/Facebook)

FORT WORTH, Texas – In an email sent out to students and parents last week, officials of Timber Creek High School in suburban Ft. Worth announced that student-led production of The Laramie Project — a play about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming freshman Matthew Shepard was cancelled.

According to The Dallas Morning News:

In the brief email to families, school leaders said they are “working on developing an alternative production opportunity for our students.” Keller Independent School District spokesman Bryce Nieman said in a statement that the decision was “made by many stakeholders.”

“The decision to move forward with another production at Timber Creek High School was based on the desire to provide a performance similar to the ones that have created much excitement from the community, like this year’s Keller ISD musical productions of Mary Poppins and White Christmas,” Nieman wrote in an email.

The Dallas Morning News also reported that parents were not given an explanation when they were informed the show was cancelled. “We understand that it is unusual for a production change like this to take place. Students will still have an opportunity to read, discuss, and analyze the play during the school day,” Nieman’s email read. 

Judy Shepard, told the paper she was disappointed. “My heart is broken when people still refuse to see how important this work is,” she said. Judy and her husband Dennis founded the Denver, Colorado-based Matthew Shepard Foundation in the months after their son’s murder 25 years ago.

The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman, is one of the many programs endorsed by the Foundation in its ongoing effort to advocate for LGBTQ+ youth and has been performed tens of thousands of times globally since it premiered at The Ricketson Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February of 2000.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation provides help and resources for those wishing to produce The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The Foundation’s Laramie Project Specialist can help with media, historical context, creative consulting, and other resources and services at no charge to non-profit theatres and educational and religious institutions. The Foundation can also help those who wish to engage their communities in a conversation about how to erase hate in the world.

A Change.org petition was started to get the Keller ISD administrators to reconsider their decision. A signer and Timber High School drama and theatre student who identified himself as Danny Street commented:

“As a queer student in this show, I am absolutely livid that it has been cancelled not once, but TWICE. My freshman year we were meant to perform Laramie, and it was changed right before auditions. KISD has been continuously pushing their anti-lgbtq agenda these past few years and it’s hurtful and uncalled for. This year alone we have given teachers “the right” to not call transgender students by their preferred name, which is a problem I have to face daily. The people in our district should not have the right to discriminate against its queer students. Let us tell this story, if you don’t then you are proving you’re on the wrong side of history and you stand right with the bigots who caused the demise of Matthew Shepard. Protect queer kids and queer art in schools.”

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Abbott: UN can ‘pound sand’ amid criticism of anti-LGBTQ policies

Letter issued last month to the United Nations that expressed alarm over the “deteriorating human rights situation” for LGBTQ Texans

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Texas Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs the “Save Women’s Sports Act” on Aug. 7, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor)

AUSTIN, Texas – Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Sunday dismissed news coverage of a letter issued last month to the United Nations that expressed alarm over the “deteriorating human rights situation” for LGBTQ people in the Lone Star State.

Signed by Equality Texas, ACLU of Texas, GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law Human Rights Clinic, the letter details how Texas legislators introduced 141 bills targeting the LGBTQ community, passing seven into law.

“The UN can go pound sand,” Abbott wrote in a post on X.

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In 2023, the governor signed a ban on gender affirming care for transgender youth, a ban on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at public universities, a ban on transgender athletes competing in college sports, a law allowing schools to use religious chaplains for counseling services, a ban on “sexually oriented performances” on public property accessible to minors (which targets drag shows), a law allowing schools to restrict LGBTQ books, and a ban on nondiscrimination ordinances by local governments.

The groups argued in their letter that these policies constitute a “systemic discriminatory policy” in violation of international human rights laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty whose tenets are enforced by the UN Human Rights Committee.

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One less safe space: The impact of UT-Austin’s new DEI ban

The new state law prohibits public universities from having diversity, equity & inclusion programs. Students say schools are overcorrecting

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Lecturer Paige Schilt planned to talk about how to find mentors as an LGBTQ student navigating higher education for the first time, but her talk was replaced with another lecture after UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

By Kate McGee and Ikram Mohamed | AUSTIN, Texas – Aaliyah Barlow needed to raise $20,000 by the end of the month.

As president of the University of Texas at Austin’s Black Student Alliance, a student group, the junior is in charge of securing funding for three dozen of her peers to attend an annual conference for Black student leaders within the Big 12 Athletic Conference. For months, she’s been asking different colleges and departments within the university to sponsor their travel, as they’ve always done before.

But this year, it’s been crickets.

President Jay Hartzell’s office — usually their largest supporter — didn’t return emails, she said. Neither did other typically supportive departments. At least one other department flatly said no.

She was told it was because of Senate Bill 17, the new state law that bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices, programs and training in Texas public universities.

As of Friday, Barlow said she and her peers have raised about $6,000, which will cover half the students originally set on attending. Instead of renting a bus, they now plan to drive the 14-hour trip. Or they’ll meet up with another school along the way to take their bus to the conference.

“It’s been really frustrating, especially since we’ve been getting money from these places every single year,” Barlow said. “We’re just a student organization … so I assumed we’d be okay. But that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024.
Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Situations like Barlow’s are playing out on college campuses across the state. At UT-Austin in particular, feelings have been fraught with students and advocates saying the school is going above and beyond what’s required by the state’s DEI ban.

Since the law went into effect at the beginning of this year, UT-Austin has closed a beloved multicultural center that housed several student organizations sponsored by the school and ended a scholarship program for undocumented students. This month, the undergraduate college canceled a lecture on finding mentors in higher education through the lens of the LGBTQ student experience after university lawyers argued it could be construed as diversity training. Some students say university officials have gone back on their word, often with little explanation, after promising that certain programs would not be impacted by the ban.

“I don’t think people even understood for real what it was until January 1, when they came back and they noticed the [Division of Diversity and Student Engagement] is not here anymore. They noticed the Multicultural Engagement Center letters have been ripped off the wall of this room,” Barlow said. “It wasn’t taken seriously because I don’t think people really understood how severe it was until it was already in effect and it was too late.”

Critics of the law say the ban’s language is vague and universities’ legal teams are advising their clients to play it safe with their interpretation of it. They believe the tendency is to overcorrect, which is ultimately harming students and faculty.

“It’s becoming a tool to usher in a colorblind university system in a way that is evasive of the history of race discrimination, evasive of state-sanctioned exclusion, not to mention attacks on the queer community,” said Antonio Ingram II, a lawyer with the Legal Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization that focuses on racial justice.

UT-Austin officials have provided little information to students and faculty who have demanded more transparency about how they are interpreting the law. They did not respond to interview requests or a list of written questions.

Amid that silence, students are scrambling to fill the financial gaps and continue traditions the university used to support.

Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024.
Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Texas’ DEI ban

Early last year, conservative think tanks started to home in on DEI offices, accusing them of indoctrinating students with left-wing ideology and forcing universities to hire people based on how much they support diversity efforts rather than on merit and achievement. Republican lawmakers agreed and have introduced legislation targeting these offices across the country. Texas became the second state to ban DEI offices, programs and training at public universities, following Florida.

“DEI programs have been shown to be exclusive, they have been shown to be ineffective and they have shown to be politically charged,” state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the ban’s author, said on the Senate floor last year. “Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech.”

Over the past few years, DEI offices have become increasingly common at universities. They are typically charged with boosting faculty diversity and helping students from all backgrounds succeed.

These offices often coordinate mentorships, tutoring and support programs to help students from underrepresented groups feel welcome and find a community on their campuses. They also provide spaces for a wide range of student groups to gather, from students of color and LGBTQ students to students with disabilities and veterans. In addition, these offices help departments cast a wide net when searching for job candidates and ensure that universities don’t violate federal discrimination laws.

Student talk, sit and read on the South Mall a the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. The UT Tower is located north of the South Mall.
Students gather at the University of Texas at Austin’s South Mall on Feb. 22, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Faculty and students have argued that banning universities’ DEI efforts would make it harder to recruit and retain top faculty and could lead some students to feel unwelcome and unsafe on campus. They also argue it walks back years of progress toward making sure that everyone, especially underrepresented students or those previously barred from entry, can succeed in school.

Texas’ DEI ban states that public colleges and universities cannot create diversity offices, hire employees to conduct DEI work, or require any DEI training as a condition for being hired by or admitted to the university. All hiring practices must be “color-blind and sex-neutral,” the law says.

The law also lists some areas that it should not affect, including course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions. It specifies that it does not apply to any “policy, practice, procedure, program, or activity to enhance student academic achievement or postgraduate outcomes that is designed and implemented without regard to race, sex, color, or ethnicity.”

In preparation for the law’s implementation, UT-Austin administrators shared with students and employees guidance from the University of Texas System, which oversees the school, about what is permitted under the ban. For instance, system guidance states that while student organizations are exempt from prohibitions, some of those groups may shut down based on the extent of institutional support they receive from the university.

“As with all new laws, I fully expect that there will be divided opinions on our campus about both the law itself and its eventual impacts on our University,” Hartzell wrote in a December letter to the campus community. “But it is the law, and with compassion and respect for all of our community members, we will comply.”

Students walk in and out of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. A sign saying 'Make it Your Texas' is on the windows above the entrance.
A sign reads “Make it Your Texas” above the entrance of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened”

The DEI ban’s exclusions led students like Guadalupe — a UT-Austin junior who is undocumented and asked to be identified only by her middle name out of fear of making her immigration status public — to believe that some of the programs she relied on throughout her time at the university would not be affected.

She mentioned the Monarch Program, which provided support and scholarships to students from undocumented families or with fluid immigration statuses. It was founded in 2016 by a UT-Austin graduate student, but the university took it over, hiring its first full-time employee in 2021 and funneling university funding for the first time just last year.

Guadalupe stumbled into the program shortly after her laptop died three years ago, a few weeks into her freshman year. She was able to borrow a laptop through Monarch’s technology lending library until she saved enough money to buy a new one. Ever since, she’s worked with the program to help other students like her stay in school and graduate.

But last month, UT-Austin eliminated the program without a public explanation. According to The Dallas Morning News, internal documents show UT-Austin believed the program violated the state’s DEI ban and federal law.

Guadalupe said she was surprised UT-Austin ended the program, especially because university officials gave students reassurances last fall that SB 17 would not affect it. She’s also frustrated the university didn’t give the program a chance to adjust to the new law.

“All these different programs were being [told], ‘This is how your program does not comply with SB 17, this is what you need to change,’” she said. “And that was just not a conversation that was had about Monarch.”

Students also argue SB 17 should not apply to the Monarch Program since it did not implement any race or gender-based programming.

“People who are undocumented come from very different backgrounds,” Guadalupe said. “You can’t just point at undocumented folks and be like, ‘oh, this is specifically like [for] the Latino community or the … Asian community,’ because it’s a very diverse group.”

In late January, a group of university department chairs sent a letter to UT administrators asking for clarity about the decision to end the Monarch Program.

“We recognize the immense challenges that SB 17 has created for your offices, but we hope that the process of compliance will not result in throwing out too many babies with the proverbial bath water,” the professors wrote.

They did not receive a response.

Since Monarch was canceled, a student-run organization called Rooted, which also provides support for undocumented students, has taken over some of the services that the program used to provide.

Victoria Uriostegui poses for a photo in the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, "You belong here."
Victoria Uriostegui at the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, “You belong here.” 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Victoria Uriostegui, a UT-Austin junior and a member of Rooted, said watching the university eliminate Monarch without warning or explanation was exactly the kind of repercussions she warned lawmakers about when she testified against SB 17 at the Texas Capitol last year.

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened,” she said. “Programs that were not supposed to be impacted are impacted. And I think that’s just what makes it more infuriating that many students continually testified about these chilling effects. Now we’re seeing them come.”

One less safe space

Aneesha Tadikonda felt seen in the university’s Multicultural Engagement Center.

Home to six student groups — Afrikan American Affairs; the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective; the Latinx Community Affairs; the Native American and Indigenous Collective; Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color Agency; and Students for Equity and Diversity — the center served as a meeting place for students of various underrepresented backgrounds and identities.

When she was a freshman, it was a place she felt comfortable asking for help as she navigated the daunting first year of college. Staffers there knew she wanted to go to medical school and would send her free study guides for the exam required to apply and discount codes for study materials. She made friends through movie screenings and book clubs. But she especially loved the opportunity to network with other Asian American students and leaders on and off campus.

“I heavily depended on [the center] for finding a community of people that had the same goals as me,” Tadikonda said. “Outside of class, that’s very difficult to find, especially as someone who’s really involved with activism and their identity.”

Students like Tadikonda were shocked when they learned early this year that the center was abruptly shut down in response to the state’s DEI ban. The university didn’t send out any formal communication to students regarding the center’s closure.

When students returned to campus from winter break, the space was still open for students to work in, but the staff was gone and the center’s name was removed. Since the ban does not apply to student organizations, the culturally specific groups once housed within the center were allowed to continue operating, but only if they disaffiliated from the university and stopped receiving financial support from the school.

Just like with the Monarch Program, students said the MEC didn’t get a chance to make changes to comply with SB 17. The center’s staff was given notice of the center’s closure about 10 days before the ban went into effect, students said.

Students are demanding that the university reestablishes the center in a way that’s compliant with SB 17. They feel that shutting down the center went beyond the requirements of the law and pointed out that other Texas universities, like the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of North Texas, kept their versions of the center open.

“I think our proximity to the Capitol is a large part of it. I think donors are a large part of it. But I would 100% say it’s an over-compliance,” said Kelly Solis, a UT-Austin senior and co-director of Latinx Community Affairs.

Kelly Solis poses for a photo in the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. Solis is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and Co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization.
Kelly Solis, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization, at the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

The MEC was originally founded in 1988 by students who felt the university lacked proper support systems for Black and Hispanic students. Ten years later, the university’s Office of Student Affairs absorbed the center and gave it two full-time staff members.

The MEC’s abrupt closure has left students with the burden of preserving programs that previously received university funding and have been essential to their college experience.

That includes one of the most anticipated events that the six student groups within the MEC helped organize each year: cultural graduation ceremonies, which are smaller celebrations hosted for Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ students, among others.

“It’s such a big accomplishment when you come to UT, and maybe as a first generation student or a child of immigrants … and be away from home for the first time,” Tadikonda said. “It breaks my heart that now we have to work 100 times harder just to give people what they deserve, to give them the recognition that they might not get in a university-wide graduation.”

Organizers said these ceremonies highlight themes, like family, that are important for the groups they represent and that aren’t always part of university-wide graduations. For instance, families are invited to participate in GraduAsian, the ceremony that commemorates the achievements of Asian students. In the past, speakers have publicly thanked them for attending and helping graduates through their college journey.

The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain.
The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

The student groups that used to be housed at the MEC now say they’re unclear if they can even reserve space on campus to host their events.

“People are scared, people who work for the university,” Solis said. “They might want to give us money or might want to provide resources in some way for our events, but don’t know if they can. So just out of fear, uncertainty and a lack of transparency, they might just say, ‘Sorry, we can’t provide anything at this time.’”

The student groups have created GoFundMe pages seeking donations to help cover the expenses of hosting celebrations for this year’s graduating class. The university’s alumni organization, Texas Exes, recently announced that they’d host cultural graduations for students, according to The Daily Texan.

Ariana Seeloff, a senior and co-director of the Afrikan American Affairs Collective, said this particular class — whose high school graduations were disrupted by COVID in 2020 — are determined to host these celebrations.

“To have this happen four years later, and not be able to have a proper send-off from college for these degrees that we’ve worked so hard to earn, it’s unimaginable,” she said. “This senior class deserves to be celebrated.”

But students say it’s unclear what will happen to culturally specific graduations after this year.

Lecture or training?

Paige Schilt, a former lecturer at UT-Austin, was thrilled when she was invited by the university’s undergraduate college to give a talk this semester about how to find a mentor as a student navigating higher education for the first time.

Schilt, a therapist, teacher and writer, planned to lean on her own personal experience as a LGBTQ student as she found ways to advocate for herself as a scholar. Staff and administrators were excited about the lecture, she said.

But in mid-January she got an email saying that UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17 because it “would fall within a prohibited training, activity, or program.”

SB 17 prohibits mandatory diversity training, which is defined as training developed in reference to race, color or gender identity. But Schilt said her lecture was not training. SB 17 does not prohibit any DEI-related scholarly research or creative work, and faculty are still allowed to share it on campus.

Schilt said she tried to work with the undergraduate college to shift the lecture’s format and instead give a reading from her memoir in progress in the hope of appeasing the university’s lawyers, but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, her talk was replaced with another lecture.

“I was really sad and discouraged to think that this law was having such a chilling effect, that basically any person from one of the marginalized communities targeted by SB 17 speaking from their own experience was now, by definition, a training,” she said.

Lecturer Paige Schilt poses for a photo outside of the the Center for Women's & Gender Studies on Feb. 19, 2024. The CWGS room is located inside of Burdine Hall.
Lecturer Paige Schilt planned to talk about how to find mentors as an LGBTQ student navigating higher education for the first time, but her talk was replaced with another lecture after UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Lauren Gutterman, an American Studies professor who focuses on LGBTQ issues, said she felt the university’s response to Schilt’s lecture was a misinterpretation of the law.

“This makes no sense to me as the lecture was not a training, it was not required, and it was not limited to any one group of students,” she said. “The only grounds I can see for their concern is that it had to do with LGBTQ+ issues.”

Schilt, who taught a class on LGBTQ history at UT-Austin last semester, said it was painful to watch students’ disappointment and sadness last semester when the university reorganized the Gender and Sexuality Center, which is now called the Women’s Community Center.

“As a teacher who had a strong connection with my students, it was really hard to kind of help them navigate through all the feelings that they were having about, ‘what does this mean about how welcome I am here?’” she said.

Who will carry the torch? 

In his December message to the UT-Austin community, Hartzell said he would follow up with students in January regarding the implementation of SB 17. He hasn’t done so as of late February.

While student groups are trying to fill in the gaps left by the loss of university resources, they worry about who will help incoming students feel supported and welcomed on campus next year. Many of the students leading these groups will graduate in May.

Student walk up the steps from Speedway towards the UT Tower at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024.
Students walk up the steps toward the UT Tower on Feb. 22, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Guadalupe said entering college can be a stressful and isolating experience. She said she’s scared for underrepresented students who won’t have access to safe places to gather on campus like she did.

“Having not had their support and their resources, my college experience would be completely different,” she said. “I think about how much more they’re going to struggle.”

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Texas Exes, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Kate McGee’s staff photo

Kate McGee covers higher education for The Texas Tribune. She joined the Tribune in October 2020 after nearly a decade as a reporter at public radio stations across the country, including in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Austin; Reno, Nevada; and New York. Kate was born in New York City and raised primarily in New Jersey. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Fordham University. Her work has appeared on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Here and Now,” and “The Takeaway.” She is based in Austin.

Ikram Mohamed’s staff photo

Ikram Mohamed is a 2024 reporting fellow and a fourth-year journalism and sociology student pursuing a human rights and social justice certificate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked at her campus newspaper, The Daily Texan. A Pflugerville native, Ikram previously interned with the Austin Chronicle, Texas Observer and Texas Monthly. She speaks fluent Somali and Swahili.

The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished with permission.

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Texas teacher suspended after anti-LGBTQ+ Libs of TikTok attack

Student & parents defended the teacher. More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition to bring the him off of administrative leave

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Screenshot/X (formerly Twitter)

LEWISVILLE, Texas – Students and some parents of the Hebron High School community are angry and defending a teacher who was suspended after anti-LGBTQ+ Libs of TikTok’s extremist creator Chaya Raichik, posted a video of him wearing a pink dress with matching boots and hat surrounded by students in the high school’s corridors.

Raichik wrote on her X (formerly Twitter) account: “UNREAL. This is an actual teacher in @LewisvilleISD named Rachmad Tjachyadi. I’m told he also sometimes shows up to teach dressed in full drag and has a fetish for wearing women’s clothing. How is this acceptable?!”

The Dallas Morning News reported that the Lewisville Independent School District received complaints after Libs of TikTok, which has more than 2.8 million followers and is known for spreading anti-LGBTQ sentiment, posted the video on Valentine’s Day.

Student and parents defended the faculty member, Rachmad Tjachyadi. More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition to bring the teacher off of administrative leave, adding that he was dressed up for spirit day, the Dallas paper also reported.

“He does not deserve to be defamed and lose his job,” the petition reads. “He has been an inspiration to many students, and has created a space where everyone can feel valued and safe.”

“It would be natural for our families to have questions about this situation, but because this is a personnel matter currently under review, there is no additional information the district can share,” principal Amy Boughton wrote in an email distributed to staff, students, and others in the Hebron High School community.

Tjachyadi has not responded to requests for comment.

“It is our standard procedure to place a staff member on leave when we review concerns shared with the campus,” Lewisville ISD spokesperson Amanda Brim told The Dallas Morning News.

The Los Angeles Blade, along with media partner Media Matters for America- a left-leaning 501 nonprofit organization and media watchdog group, has published over thirty articles covering Raichik and her attacks on the LGBTQ+ community.

related

Recently, Raichik bitterly portrayed an in-depth investigative article by NBC News technology reporter David Ingram, detailing bomb threats and violent threats inspired by Raichik’s social media posts, as a “goal is to silence me by having me investigated and thrown in prison.”

In November of 2023, in a lengthy exposé, Media Matters researchers documented 25 institutions, events, and individuals who reported threats after being targeted by Libs of TikTok, and 8 who reported harassment — a total of at least 33 instances of threats or harassment, which was then independently reported on by NBC News.

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Houston PD: Shooter NOT trans; Libs of TikTok, far right claim trans

“Our investigation to this point, talking with individuals, interviews, documents, HPD reports- she identified this entire time as female” 

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Houston Police Department homicide commander Christopher Hassig briefing reporters Monday afternoon. (Screenshot/YouTube KHOU)

HOUSTON, Texas – In the hours after Genesee Moreno, a 36 years old, Hispanic female entered the sanctuary of Joel Osteen’s mega Lakewood Church and opened fire with an assault rifle this past Sunday, there were multiple instances of confusion over her gender identity, in part fueled by unsubstantiated or false narratives from far-right extremists.

During a briefing with reporters yesterday, Houston Police Department homicide commander Christopher Hassig stated with absolute clarity that Moreno was not a transgender person.

“Our shooter is identified by a driver’s license as Genesee Moreno 36 years old, Hispanic female. There are some discrepancies. We do have reports she used multiple aliases, including Jeffrey Escalante. So she has utilized both male and female names but through all of our investigation to this point, talking with individuals, interviews, documents, Houston Police Department reports, she has identified this entire time as female,”  Hassig told the media.

KHOU-TV investigative reporter Jeremy Rogalski’s initial reporting as posted to X.

In initial coverage, local CBS affiliate KHOU and the Houston Chronicle newspaper reported Moreno, who had used the name Jeffery Escalante, had an extensive criminal history dating back to 2005 according to a Texas Department of Public Safety records search. Prior arrests include failure to stop and give information, assault of a public servant, assault causing bodily injury, forgery, possession of marijuana, theft, evading arrest unlawful carrying weapon.

Media outlets including Fox News and even NBC News who later retracted a portion of their story mistakenly framed the context as “a person who previously identified as male” which led to the incorrect framing of Moreno’s gender identity.

Far-right extremist pundits and at least one anti-trans member of the U.S. House took up the “shooter was trans” narrative.

Screenshot of Libs of TikTok far-right extremist creator Chaya Raichik’s post on the Houston shooter.

Chaya Raichik’s post had a companion extremist anti-trans X post by Georgia Republican U. S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene who republished a post by far-right media Blaze TV anchor Sara Gonzales, both falsely claiming Moreno was transgender. Gonzales’ post appeared to contain a criminal record without attribution of its source.

Libs of TikTok’s Raichik also posted the same “criminal record” on her social media accounts.

Fox News also ran misleading and false headlines regarding Moreno’s gender identity. Alejandra Caraballo a trans attorney and clinical instructor at the prestigious Harvard Law Cyberlaw Clinic who also writes on gender & technology issues for Wired and Slate magazines debunked the Fox News allegations and called out the far-right anti-trans extremists.

“Far right extremist accounts like Libs of Tiktok rushed to call the shooter at Joel Osteen’s church a transgender woman. The police have just confirmed that is not the case and she was the biological mother of the child who was shot. They won’t apologize or retract their lies,” Caraballo said.

Media Matters of America’s LGBTQ project executive director Ari Drennen cautioned Tuesday the falsehoods and fabrications are “adding fuel to a moral panic” on trans issues as multiple state legislators rush to pass anti-trans laws:

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Houston media: Megachurch shooter used male & female names

The shooter at the mega Lakewood Church, in southwest Houston on Sunday armed with a long rifle, previously used male name

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Alleged suspect Genesse Moreno (Screenshot/YouTube KHOU)

HOUSTON, Texas – Multiple Houston press outlets are reporting Monday morning that the woman who entered Joel and Victoria Osteen’s mega Lakewood Church, in southwest Houston on Sunday armed with a long rifle had used male and female names.

Multiple independent sources told KHOU 11’s reporter, Jeremy Rogalski, that Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, who had begun firing almost upon entering was killed by two off-duty law enforcement officers, who were working at Lakewood Church. One is a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission agent who is 38 years old with four years of service. The other off-duty officer is an Houston Police Department officer who is 28 years old with two years of service.

UPDATE: The boy, who authorities described as a 7-year-old, remained in critical condition Monday with a gunshot wound to the head. He had been described as a 5-year-old on Sunday.

The shooter walked into the Houston mega-church with a 5-year-old child while wearing a trench coat and carrying a backpack that she reportedly announced had explosives inside. Law enforcement searched her and her vehicle, no explosives were found.

KHOU and the Houston Chronicle are reporting Moreno, who had used the name Jeffery Escalante, had an extensive criminal history dating back to 2005 according to a Texas Department of Public Safety records search. Prior arrests include failure to stop and give information, assault of a public servant, assault causing bodily injury, forgery, possession of marijuana, theft, evading arrest unlawful carrying weapon.

In a Sunday press conference Houston Police Chief Troy Finner told reporters in addition to Moreno who was shot to death by the off-duty officers returning her fire, the 5-year-old boy accompanying her and a 57-year-old man were both hit by gunfire. Finner said that the child was taken to a hospital in critical condition, the man was wounded in his leg.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is calling for investigators to look into whether or not the shooting was a hate-crime targeting Hispanic people, the Houston Chronicle reported. The shooter arrived at the church just minutes before a Spanish-language sermon was scheduled to begin.

“I don’t want to talk about her motivations because I don’t know. Right?” HPD Chief Finner said at the Sunday press conference.

The Houston Chronicle reported members of the FBI, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Conroe Police Department and Texas Rangers arrived at Moreno’s suburban Houston area home in Conroe, Texas, North of Houston home hours after the Sunday shooting to collect evidence. 

A motive for the shooting is unknown at this time.

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