Texas school board launches investigation into how a trans student was stripped of his role in musical

Amy and Phillip Hightower sit with their son Max Hightower in a hotel in Denton on Nov. 9,...
Amy and Phillip Hightower sit with their son Max Hightower in a hotel in Denton on Nov. 9, 2023. Max temporarily lost his role in the Sherman High School musical because he is transgender.(Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune)
Published: Nov. 19, 2023 at 2:17 PM CST
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DENTON — A rural North Texas school board on Friday agreed to launch an investigation into how a transgender student temporarily lost his role in the high school musical — an administrative decision that thrust the small town into the national debate over LGBTQ+ rights.

The board also stripped the school district’s superintendent of his duties overseeing the fine arts department, pending the outcome of the investigation.

The Sherman school board’s decision Friday afternoon is the latest flashpoint since Max Hightower, a senior at Sherman High School, was told he would lose his role — and solo — in the musical earlier this month.

The school board previously reversed that decision, directing school leadership to reinstate Hightower and other students in their original roles in “Oklahoma!” — a quintessential American musical about love and statehood.

The board’s decision seems to counter Texas’s political reality. For several years, Republicans and conservative policymakers at all levels have sought to limit transgender rights. Nearby schools in suburban Dallas have pushed book bans and policies that require teachers to call students by the name on their birth certificate and use similar gender pronouns. The Legislature this year also banned gender-affirming treatment for minors, even with parental permission.

And yet the school board’s actions reaffirms what Max Hightower, 17, and his parents have long felt about their rural town. Until the musical controversy, Max said he largely felt accepted here.

“I’ve never had any issues,” Max said. “That’s why I was so surprised.”

Public backlash for the decision to recast Max and other students was swift — dozens of news articles and multiple statements from organizations across the nation condemned the move.

The school board meeting Friday was a stage of its own, with dozens of Sherman residents giving impassioned public comments both for and against Sherman ISD Superintendent Tyson Bennett. One commenter had to be removed by security after he refused to cede his time.

Community pastors and former school employees lined up to support Bennett. They said the board’s decision to give Max his role back was more than enough.

“Get your pound of flesh somewhere else,” former Sherman ISD employee Bob Jones said during the meeting.

Those who suggested Bennett should be either fired — or at the least reprimanded — called the decision illegal and cited Title IX, the federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on gender. Others called for investigations into how the superintendent handled this situation and others in the past, as some parents called the move a “pattern” of behavior.

The board voted unanimously both to approve the hiring of an investigator and to remove Bennett from supervising the fine arts programs. Sherman ISD’s chief academic officer Amy Pesina will oversee fine arts programs in the interim.

Bennett has served as Sherman’s superintendent since May 2022, and has been met with criticisms from parents since the beginning of his tenure. Bennett introduced the “Stand in the Gap” program, which encourages local churches to be more involved with the district, and invited pastors to say prayer during one of the district’s convocations, a move several parents described as “inappropriate.”

The board’s decision on Friday is a “little win” to Phillip Hightower, Max’s father, but he says Bennett is still “dangerous” to LGBTQ+ students in the district.

“It’s great that he won’t interact with the fine arts,” Phillip said. “But what about all the other students?”