Westridge Students Join the Fight for Texas Death Row Inmate
Students for Social Justice club heads during the letter-signing event. From left: Grace M. ‘22, Sophia R. ‘20, and Sophia VW. ‘22
During Upper School lunch on November 8, high school students gathered around a table in front of the Commons to sign and address letters of petition to save a life.
Rodney Reed has been on death row for over two decades and was just last week set to be executed on November 20 in Texas. He was arrested in 1996 for the murder of a 19-year-old woman named Stacy Stites, but Reed has resolutely maintained his innocence. Recently, new evidence emerged that called his conviction into question.
Three forensic experts who worked on the case wrote affidavits in which they have admitted errors in the original timeline of Stites’ death, and other testimonies reveal that Stites’ fiancé, a police officer named Jimmy Fennell, later confessed to her murder. In 2018, Fennell was released from prison after spending 10 years behind bars for kidnapping and raping another woman.
The Westridge Students for Social Justice (SSJ) club felt passionate about Reed’s innocence, so they decided to do something about it. The students printed out clemency letters and brought envelopes to school to send to Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. This provided a quick, accessible, and impactful way for students to advocate for Reed.
One of the three club heads, Sonaya V. ’22, described why she was so motivated to organize this event for Upper Schoolers. “I think all three of us … recognized it as a social justice issue because of the new information and all of the racism in [the case],” she explained. Reed, who is Black, was convicted by an all-White jury; Fennell joined a White supremacist group while in prison and used racist slurs to describe Reed.
Sophia R. ’20, the president of SSJ, realized that she could use the club to help promote Reed’s case and inform the Westridge community. Even though she noticed people posting about it on social media, she knew that many would still not choose to take action or know how to get involved. “I realized, ‘Wait, I can do something about this!’” she exclaimed.
Sophia ran into a few obstacles trying to publicize her efforts. When she asked Brittany Coker, Dean of Upper School Student Activities, to send out an email to the entire Upper School student body notifying them of the table she would be hosting at lunch the following day, her request was denied.
This frustrated many students, who wondered why other groups are often able to advertise activities and events via email while SSJ was not allowed to. Coker clarified her reasons for not sending out the mass email that Sophia had wanted. “Although I personally supported the activity and helped behind the scenes, I realized I wasn’t clear on our guidelines for sending [an] email on behalf of students or clubs,” she disclosed. This is Coker’s first year in this role, so she looked to emails from previous years to see what the practice has been regarding student emails in the past. She noticed that Kali Reider, former Dean of Upper School Student Activities, only sent blast emails concerning Westridge-specific events such as Spirit Days or Prom.
Coker explained that political emails such as this one about Rodney Reed “may unintentionally imply an official school stance” on controversial issues like the death penalty.
The lack of clarity over what information is shared and who disseminates it may stem from a lack of any clear policy. Spyglass consulted Westridge’s Parent/Student Handbook and found no definitive guidelines about email communications from individual students or student groups to the Upper School. “I think that the school should inform students of opportunities like this because it’s a really big issue and students can decide what they want to do with that opportunity themselves,” Sophia remarked.
Jamie G. ’20 has been following the news closely and also recognized the power in creating a space and providing a platform for students to stand up for issues they believe in. She signed the online petition but wanted to do more. “I think a lot of times, as students and as kids, it’s like, how do we affect change?” Because of SSJ, she learned of more opportunities to support Reed and signed one of the approximately 170 letters that Westridge students and faculty signed in total.
Westridge students joined the countless organizations, politicians, lawmakers, and celebrities who wrote to the state and the governor to delay Reed’s upcoming execution. On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas granted Reed an indefinite stay of execution and ordered that his case return to the trial court.
Westridge students were a small part of something very big.