At a heated Texas school board meeting in late July, a man accused a Black principal of promoting critical race theory and “the conspiracy theory of systemic racism.” The man named the principal several times during his remarks, despite a school board policy barring direct attacks.

Just over a month later, the district has suspended Colleyville Heritage High School Principal James Whitfield without explanation, he told The Washington Post on Tuesday. The decision followed several weeks of controversy during which Whitfield said he was not promoting critical race theory. Students turned out to defend their principal, while parents demanded his termination.

“I was not given any clear reasoning behind the decision and was not given a timetable regarding further steps,” Whitfield said in a Facebook message. “I was simply told that it was in the best interest of the district.”

Schools Superintendent Robin Ryan sent parents an email announcing Whitfield’s suspension on Monday but did not provide a reason for the decision, KXAS-TV reported.

“The decision to place Dr. Whitfield on administrative leave was not a result of the complaints made by members of the community against him,“ Kristin Snively, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an emailed statement. “As this is an ongoing personnel matter, we will not comment further. We remain committed to providing a learning environment at Colleyville Heritage that fosters and encourages student academic and extracurricular achievement.”

The conflict in Colleyville, a city in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, highlights an increasingly fraught debate around critical race theory, an academic framework for examining systemic racism that Republican politicians have recently seized on as the latest battle in the culture wars. Conservative lawmakers in several states — including Texas, Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee and Oklahoma — have proposed bans on teaching critical race theory in public schools. Some of those bans, like the one in Oklahoma, have barred the topic on college campuses as well as in K-12 schools.

Whitfield, the first Black principal to run Colleyville Heritage High School, became embroiled in a local controversy over critical race theory at a July 26 school board meeting. A man introduced in the meeting as Stetson Clark called the principal out by name, in violation of the meeting’s rules, and demanded Whitfield be fired. Members of the audience hollered “fire him” and applauded, Whitfield said.

“That behavior was allowed, and a month later, here we are,” the principal told The Post. “I’m placed on paid administrative leave.”

Five days after the meeting, the principal defended himself against the calls for termination in a public Facebook post.

“I can no longer maintain my silence in the face of this hate, intolerance, racism, and bigotry,” he said in the July 31 post. “I am not the CRT (Critical Race Theory) Boogeyman. I am the first African American to assume the role of Principal at my current school in its 25-year history, and I am keenly aware of how much fear this strikes in the hearts of a small minority who would much rather things go back to the way they used to be.”

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

The recent dispute over critical race theory was not Whitfield’s first clash with parents. In 2019, shortly after Whitfield was named the first Black principal of a middle school in Colleyville, a parent complained to the district about a photo Whitfield had posted on social media that showed him and his wife, who is White, in an embrace, celebrating their wedding anniversary.

“Is this the Dr. Whitfield we want as an example for our students?” the parent asked in an email that Whitfield recounted on Facebook. The district asked Whitfield to remove the photo to avoid further controversy, KXAS-TV reported.

In late August, more than two dozen students gathered outside Colleyville Heritage High School holding signs that said “I stand with Dr. Whitfield” and “Hate has no home in [our school district]," the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. A dozen parents also gathered in a show of support for Whitfield, the newspaper reported.

Whitfield denied the allegations that he is promoting critical race theory at his high school and said he aims to create a welcoming learning environment for all students.

“There’s no credence to the CRT claims,” he told The Post. “This group that has spoken out against me has a problem with inclusivity, with embracing diversity and with providing equitable experiences for all students.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date a parent complained about Principal James Whitfield’s social media photos. The complaint was made in 2019. The story has been corrected.