The dozens of protesters waited outside School Without Walls at Francis Stevens in Northwest Washington, chanting, holding signs and demanding to know why the school system abruptly removed their principal.

They believed their principal, Richard Trogisch, was removed because he spoke out against the school system’s plan to bring back students to classrooms. D.C. Public Schools denies these claims but has provided few details about the circumstance of his departure, failing to quell the speculations.

The protesters wanted to hear directly from Instructional Superintendent Jerry Jellig, a top school system official who was on campus talking to administrators Thursday morning while they rallied outside.

“He left,” one teacher loudly screamed as they learned that Jellig exited through a back door, seemingly thwarting protesters’ attempts to speak with him face to face.

And then an extraordinary scene unfolded in front of the public school building. A protester spotted Jellig’s maroon Honda SUV a half-block away, and the entire throng of protesters chased it. Jellig attempted to reverse to escape the crowd, but he drove right into a dead-end parking lot. One teacher physically stood in front of his slowly moving car, daring him to drive any farther. They had him cornered.

“Answer questions,” they yelled. “Be accountable.”

The adults stood back and the children surrounded his car for nearly 30 minutes. A young boy whose head reached just above the side mirror stood inches away from Jellig’s driver’s-side window, staring inside. A teenager stood in front of the vehicle crying as she tried to tell Jellig what Trogisch meant to her. Her friends demanded that Jellig make eye contact with them.

Jellig never rolled down his window and appeared to be on his phone much of the time. The standoff ended only when three D.C. police officers arrived and eventually escorted Jellig away. (Top school leaders said at a community meeting Thursday that Jellig did not call the police, but that the school system did because he needed to visit another campus.)

It was a scene that highlighted the mistrust that has engulfed the city’s public school workforce and parents as officials try to convince them that it will be safe for some students to return to school buildings in November. And it showed the city’s struggle to provide families and teachers answers when they want them.

“We are shocked and disappointed,” said Daya George, a sophomore at School Without Walls. “We are not going to take this sitting down.”

D.C. Public Schools said in a statement that Trogisch’s departure is due to an unspecified “enrollment anomaly.”

“Adherence to the District’s policy and procedures on school enrollment is critical,” a school system spokesperson said in a statement. “Mr. Trogisch’s departure is unrelated to any issues associated with school reopening, health, or safety.”

The school system would not say when the enrollment incident occurred or why Trogisch left this week.

Richard Jackson, who heads the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership in the school system, said the “enrollment anomaly” occurred in the 2019-2020 academic year at School Without Walls at Francis Stevens — a neighborhood elementary and middle school. Trogisch is also the principal at School Without Walls high school, a competitive application high school.

D.C. Public Schools provided no details about the “anomaly,” but the school lottery and enrollment are contentious — and scrutinized — issues in the District. The school system’s previous chancellor resigned in 2018 amid revelations he skirted the city’s competitive lottery system so his daughter could transfer to a sought-after high school. A 2017 city report found that well-connected parents and city officials routinely bypassed the lottery for their children, prompting Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to tighten the rules.

Trogisch came under fire last year for breaking city protocol and not properly advertising changes to the competitive Walls high school admissions process. The changes were aimed at expanding access to the school — which has the highest percentage of White students of any high school in the school system — and city leaders feared that Trogisch failed to properly inform parents in every ward of the changes.

In recent years, at least three principals who had been removed midyear were placed on administrative leave and received their salary for the remainder of their contracts. Jackson said Trogisch was terminated and will not be paid after Oct. 22.

School system principals operate with one-year contracts that must be renewed each year. But the principals’ union and the school system have recently negotiated a deal to extend the contracts to two years. A resolution to extend the contracts is expected to be approved by the D.C. Council next month, according to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

Jackson said the union has filed a labor grievance arguing that Trogisch’s termination was unjust. The grievance includes a request for more severance.

“But for some egregious act, termination is strange,” Jackson said. “There has to be another reason.”

Jackson and Walls teachers said that Trogisch had pushed back against plans to reopen elementary schools next month, saying that he did not feel that the school system was adequately preparing his building to receive students in the midst of the pandemic.

Mendelson said he does not know either what led to the immediate termination of Trogisch and thinks the intense backlash is a reflection of the bad communication between the school system and families. He does not yet know what action he may take on the council on the removal of the principal.

“This situation can be ripe for rumors,” Mendelson said. “Rumors can be distressing. “DCPS can do better.” School leaders held a virtual meeting with families Thursday evening. They informed them that Shawn Stover, a school system instructional superintendent, would be the interim principal for about three weeks. They are searching for an interim principal for the rest of the academic year and are considering current assistant principals for the job at Walls.

Families left questions and comments in the chat bar. One person wrote that his departure could be a chance for a fresh start. Some asked about the safety of the school building. But most wanted to know why Trogisch left — a question school leaders said they could not answer.