The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black principal was accused of embracing critical race theory in the classroom. He’s now out of a job.

Colleyville Heritage High School students protest in support of Principal James Whitfield on Sept. 9. (Nitashia Johnson for The Washington Post)

James Whitfield sat in his home in northern Texas with his family and watched the live stream of the special meeting happening a few miles away that would determine his fate as principal of Colleyville Heritage High School — a vote that had seemingly already been decided.

Whitfield had been embroiled in controversy for months over accusations that he had embraced critical race theory and indoctrinated students in the classroom — allegations he’s vehemently denied. Earlier this year, the school board voted to suspend him and, more recently, decided not to renew his contract.

The case drew national attention at a time when educators are trying to address racism amid a larger reckoning over inequity in the aftermath of George Floyd’s police killing, and critical race theory has become a target for conservatives around the country. Students rallied to defend Whitfield — the first Black principal at the majority White school.

Ultimately, their efforts could not save Whitfield’s job. On Monday, the board of trustees for the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District unanimously voted to part ways with Whitfield.

For Whitfield, watching the events unfold has been uncomfortable, but ultimately, he said, he wraps up his time at Colleyville Heritage High School feeling hopeful.

“A lot of people who showed love and support gave me a great sense of hope, even though things haven’t been the easiest,” Whitfield, 43, told The Washington Post. “For the few people who had negative things to say, I’ve tried to balance out how none of those people know me, none of them have met me, none of them have communicated with me.”

These Texas teens stayed silent about racism. Then their Black principal was suspended.

Whitfield, who said he was unable to address some issues because of a settlement agreement with the district, previously told The Post that he was targeted by political activists wanting to block attempts to make schools more inclusive. He again denounced those who’ve falsely painted him and other educators as promoting critical race theory — a decades-old academic framework that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

“Those people gained momentum and instilled fear,” he said. “I would love to see research of when people across the country knew what critical race theory was.”

The district’s decision comes as more efforts to address racism inside school systems nationwide are being called out as divisive by some parents, conservatives and right-leaning media outlets. Some of those attempts to strengthen racial equity in the classroom were soundly defeated by conservative school board candidates who ran on platforms this year against critical race theory and policies aimed at promoting diversity.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has passed two controversial laws this year meant to ban any mention of critical race theory from public school classrooms. Though it is already against the law to teach it, some parents and school board candidates have alleged it gets “sprinkled in” during lessons nonetheless.

Conservative school board wins may deliver chilling effect on racial equity efforts

Shortly after Floyd’s murder, Whitfield wrote a letter at 4:30 a.m. to the Colleyville Heritage community that outlined how systemic racism was “alive and well” and asked students and parents to “commit to being an anti-racist.” The immediate reaction to the racial justice protests of 2020 and his letter was overwhelming, Whitfield said, as he heard from people he didn’t expect to reach out, those who wanted to come together to not only acknowledge that systemic racism exists, but also begin to change the culture.

“We had this moment where we had this powder keg of inspiration,” he said, “and then people tried to weaponize that movement to make it something counter to what it really is.”

The first sign of pushback to his letter didn’t come until roughly a year later at a school board meeting. In July, Stetson Clark, a White man who lost a bid earlier this year to serve on the school board, accused Whitfield of promoting critical race theory. Clark demanded that the board fire Whitfield “because of his extreme views,” which was met by cheers from audience members.

Whitfield, who has a doctorate in educational leadership from Dallas Baptist University, said he had no interest in critical race theory until he looked into why the topic was being brought up by some parents and conservatives. Though he initially shrugged off talk about the subject, he acknowledged that it could no longer be ignored.

“These people flipped what we were doing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and turned the tide on the push for diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism by placing them under the umbrella of this false narrative of critical race theory,” he said.

While there was no evidence that critical race theory was taught at the high school or by Whitfield, parents and district officials accused the principal of “insubordination” and “being dishonest with the media” about the allegations related to subject. Whitfield defended himself on Facebook and told KXAS that racism was the root issue of the unfavorable treatment.

The national attention was uncomfortable, he said, but he was compelled to speak out because he could no longer sit in silence over a narrative on critical race theory that was not true.

“If I had allowed them to say that long enough without me defending myself, it would have been like I was complicit in their narrative,” he said. “Sometimes, you can’t do what’s convenient but what’s necessary. I felt it was necessary to step up.”

When he was suspended in August, the school district said the discipline was “not a result of the complaints made” against him over critical race theory, despite the timing. Students at the majority-White high school staged walkouts to protest the suspension.

Despite the outcry, the school board voted in September to propose that his contract not be renewed.

“Dr. Whitfield has diminished his effectiveness by dividing large segments of the community,” a school district official said during a September school board meeting — a remark that led many in the crowd to erupt into jeers and protests.

The back-and-forth continued Monday, with students calling Whitfield “the best principal all of us had ever had” as angry parents claimed the principal “damaged the reputation of this community,” reported the Dallas Morning News. Among those to speak was Clark, whose initial rebuke of Whitfield set off a chain reaction that’s lasted months.

“How did we get here?” he asked, which was met with laughter from the audience, according to KERA. “We got here through critical race theory, social-emotional learning and equity, whatever you want to label it. It is my sincere hope that this board will continue to remove this divisive ideology from our district.”

On the evening of this week’s vote, Whitfield tweeted a line from writer James Baldwin featured in the 1963 book “The Fire Next Time”: “It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”

The board of trustees went on to approve a settlement to end his contract and three-year tenure with the district. He will be on paid administrative leave until August 2023, according to a copy of the settlement agreement obtained by The Post.

In a joint statement from Whitfield and the school district, they said they had “mutually agreed to resolve their disputes.”

“Both the district and Dr. Whitfield each strongly believe they are in the right,” the statement reads. “However, each also agrees that the division in the community about this matter has impacted the education of the district’s students.”

Whitfield told The Post that he wants to continue working in a career related to education. He hopes his response can be an example to educators who might feel pressured over issues concerning equity and race in schools.

“You have to fight. That’s just what it is. You owe it to yourself to fight,” he said. “It’s a crazy time, but I’m hopeful; I’m hopeful.”

Hannah Natanson and Katie Shepherd contributed to this report.

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