Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
It was June 3, 2020, and James Whitfield couldn’t sleep. He hadn’t been able to sleep for the last several days. As a Black man, the deaths of three Black Americans, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, weighed heavily on his mind. Their slayings by white people had been dominating the news — sparking once again national conversations about race and racism in the United States.
Last summer, protest after protest made waves across the nation. It was no different in Texas, and Whitfield, who had weeks earlier been named the first Black principal at Colleyville Heritage High School, couldn’t just sit back. He said he felt like he had a platform that other Black Americans didn’t have and he wouldn’t let that go to waste.
At 4:30 a.m., he wrote a letter to the school community declaring that systemic racism is “alive and well” and that they needed to work together to achieve “conciliation for our nation.”
“Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism,” Whitfield wrote. “It’s a necessary conduit to get ‘liberty and justice for all.’”
Then, the feedback to that letter was nothing short of spectacular, Whitfield said. He didn’t hear a single negative comment. He felt there was a consensus in the community. But, a little over a year later, his words would backfire.
At a July 26 Grapevine-Colleyville ISD school board meeting, Stetson Clark, a former school board candidate at Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, would use the letter to accuse Whitfield of teaching and promoting “critical race theory.”
At the podium, Clark named Whitfield four times, even though the board asked him not to criticize particular employees. The first time, someone in the audience yelled out, “How about you fire him?” Clark continued to name Whitfield, completely ignoring the rules, and called for the board to fire him.
“He is encouraging the disruption and destruction of our district,” Clark said.
When his time wrapped up, Clark walked away from the podium to cheers from the audience.
And in the ensuing days, Whitfield found himself at the center of the debate over how race is taught in Texas schools. He received a disciplinary letter from the district a few weeks later and was placed on administrative leave soon after that.
On Monday, the school board met and recommended a proposal to not renew Whitfield's contract for the 2022-2023 school year. Gema Padgett, executive director of human resources for GCISD, said this was recommended because of Whitfield's evaluations, deficiencies in communications and insubordination. Padgett said Whitfield lied to the media and created division in the community.
District officials made clear that the vote was the first in a two-step process. Now, the board will hold a hearing so Whitfield can present his case in front of the district. After that, the board will vote on whether to renew his contract for the next school year.
Before the board made its Monday decision, 35 people made public comments to the board — all of which were in favor of reinstating Whitfield as principal. And Whitfield himself spoke before board members went behind closed doors to decide his fate.
The 43-year-old asked for an explanation from the school board. He said he felt as though attitudes toward him changed after he was accused of teaching the controversial discipline on July 26.
“The attacks from people outside is one thing but the outright silence and direct actions taken towards me by the GCISD leadership team are absolutely heartbreaking,” Whitfield said.
In their comments, district residents said Whitfield is a great principal, accused the board of succumbing to racist rhetoric and criticized the district for not being transparent about the principal’s case.
Beverly Mavis, a 28-year resident of GCISD, said in her experience, this has been the community’s lowest point, calling the events of the past two months a “witch hunt,” she said.
“That hatred, divisiveness and bigotry have no place in GCISD,” Mavis said. “Choose to support decency, diversity, inclusiveness and reinstate Dr. Whitfield.”
For some advocates and experts, Whitfield has become an example of what could happen to educators who try to address issues of racism or inequality in the classroom, especially now that Texas lawmakers have passed a new law targeting what they say is critical race theory.
Colleyville is a majority-white city with only 1% of residents identifying as Black or African American, according to census data. The median household income tops $150,000.
“I am the quintessential boogeyman for these people,” Whitfield said. “Anything that has to do with anything related to equity, or inclusion or diversity — they’re going to try to attach it to CRT.”
Republicans target critical race theory
Critical race theory is an academic discipline that holds that racism is inherent in societal systems that broadly perpetuate racial inequity. Teachers say that it’s rarely taught in high school classrooms, though some say the discipline informs their approaches as they try to make their lessons more inclusive in a state where only about a quarter of students are white.
Over the summer and spring, the perceived threat of critical race theory has turned into a Republican rallying cry in an apparent pushback against increased conversations about diversity and inclusion and unpacking implicit bias. Republican leaders have claimed it’s indoctrinating students and teaching white students that they are racist. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called it a “ridiculous leftist narrative.” Gov. Greg Abbott has called for it to be abolished in Texas schools.
GOP lawmakers made it a priority this year to pass legislation to stop schools from teaching the discipline.
Lawmakers eventually passed House Bill 3979, which restricts how teachers can discuss current events, encourage civic engagement and teach about America’s history of racism. And during the second special session, lawmakers successfully sent Senate Bill 3, a more restrictive version of the house bill, to Abbott. Abbott signed SB 3 into law Friday afternoon.
Among other things, it bans schools from requiring political activism as part of a course and says teachers can’t teach that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.” Neither SB 3 nor HB 3979 specifically mentions critical race theory.
Whitfield, who was the principal and didn’t teach classes, maintains that he never taught the subject, nor did he ever mention it to teachers, students or parents. In accusing Whitfield, Clark pinned his case on Whitfield’s stated belief that systemic racism exists.
“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,” Whitfield wrote in a Facebook post days after the accusations.
Clark did not respond to an interview request.
The school board meeting was not the first time Whitfield felt his race was affecting how he was being judged as a principal. In 2019, he was starting a new job as principal at Heritage Middle School — also in Grapevine-Colleyville ISD — when the district raised concerns about some photos on his Facebook page.
In 2009, he and his white wife had a wedding anniversary photoshoot on the beach and posted the images on his profile. In one photo reviewed by The Texas Tribune, the principal leaned over his wife — getting ready for a kiss — while they both lay on a beach.
At the time, the district asked him to take the photos down. He wondered how anyone had even found them — they were 10 years old and buried on his page. It felt like someone had dug through a decade’s worth of photos, seemingly looking for controversy.
Whitfield says he now regrets not asking what the request meant. Instead, he just changed his settings so no one else could see his photos. He said he didn’t want to “rock the boat” since he had just been promoted, and he thought that was the end of that discussion.
“When I was asked to take these photos down, I knew that a community member would have that kind of power over me,” Whitfield said.
“Some kind of political landmine”
For a time, the issue seemed to die down. In the spring of last school year, his employment evaluation offered areas for improvement, but gave no sign that his job would soon be at stake. In April, he signed a contract to return to Heritage High School for the 2021-22 school year.
Whitfield did not sign off on his evaluation though and instead sent a rebuttal letter to school administration, citing that the pandemic made things difficult.
Samantha Zelling, a senior at Colleyville Heritage, said Whitfield has been the most personable principal she has ever had. He was at every sports game, even the practices, she said. He would stand at the busiest corner of the high school and try to get to know his students, she said.
But problems arose again soon after the July school board meeting.
Behind closed doors, Whitfield said he felt the support of some board members after Clark’s comments, but publicly it wasn’t the same.
In the Aug. 16 disciplinary letter, titled a “Review of Past Events and Directives for Future Behavior,” GCISD Superintendent Robin Ryan brought up the photos. He called one of the pictures “overly intimate,” noting that it was the only photo in the shoot the district asked Whitfield to take down. Ryan said having this photo up was not appropriate for a middle school administrator.
Ryan also said Whitfield, who had discussed the situation with local media after the meeting, was dishonest with the press and that he “deliberately and dishonestly maligned the District.”
In the letter, Ryan also took exception to a Whitfield tweet regarding sending kids back to school without proper safety protocols, in which he said the “lack of regard for the health and well-being of our people is appalling!” While Whitfield did not mention the district in the tweet, Ryan argued that it didn't matter because publicly, he is perceived as the principal of Colleyville Heritage.
Ryan concluded that Whitfield’s past and present behaviors violated the district’s professional ethical conduct, practices and performance policy and the district’s policy on ethical conduct toward professional colleagues. Both policies mention that the educator won’t harm others by knowingly making false statements about colleagues or the district and that the educator shall not be deceptive regarding school policies.
Whitfield was then given directives. One of them was to focus on his job, as Ryan believed Whitfiled had “been focusing on yourself and your personal concerns,” and to work on his areas of growth as identified in his evaluation. Whitfield was supposed to sign Ryan’s letter, but he refused. And on Aug. 30, he was put on paid leave.
He said he was given no reason for the decision. In a letter obtained by The Texas Tribune, Ryan tells Whitfield that he made the decision because “it is in the best interest of the District.”
“They took my keys. They took my badge. They took my computer,” Whitfield said. “Treated me like I was some criminal.”
In the aftermath, Whitfield has received an outpouring of support — from Facebook groups advocating for him to a petition to a student walkout on Sept. 9 and 10.
Zelling organized the walkouts with her friends. They have been staunch supporters of Whitfield since the July 26 meeting. Each day, about 100 students walked out, and they have been at board meetings speaking in support of Whitfield.
She said the timing of the school board is suspicious.
“If Stetson Clark did not speak at that meeting, I think Dr. Whitfield would still be principal,” she said.
Laura Leeman, a parent in the district, said she finds it hard to understand why the district didn’t publicly support Whitfield and why the district has not given the community any reason as to why he is on leave.
“The lack of response has been a dagger in our hearts,” Leeman said. “He was put there for a reason, and he was excelling.”
Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, said it is unusual for a school district to work toward terminating a teacher’s contract during the school year or to discuss nonrenewal when the school year has just begun.
The easiest way for school districts to get rid of employees is to not renew their contracts toward the end of the school year. The district would still have to have good cause. If a teacher’s or administrator’s contract is terminated midyear, then the Texas Education Agency needs to be involved to conduct “mini trials,” she said.
Whitfield and his lawyer, David Henderson, said they don’t know what will happen Monday when the school board meets. One thing they don’t expect — but hope will happen — is that the school board acknowledges that he did nothing wrong and can get back to work.
Jorge Rodríguez, GCISD school board president, released a statement Aug. 6 acknowledging that Clark broke the meeting’s rules, that he wouldn’t let it happen again and that he had reached out to Whitfield after the meeting.
But the fight over critical race theory in Colleyville shows no sign of abating. This summer, Shannon Braun was elected to the GCISD school board. She promised during her campaign to remove critical race theory from the district.
Braun was endorsed by Allen West, former chair of the Republican Party of Texas and now candidate for governor of Texas. West has been a vocal opponent of critical race theory in schools and has called on conservative families to take over school boards.
Braun did not respond to an interview request.
The school district said in a statement that Whitfield was not put on administrative leave because of the accusations or because of the photos on his social media account that were brought to the district’s attention in 2019.
“We understand that members of our community have questions, but the District does not resolve personnel matters in the media,” district officials said. “We have established procedures for that which we are following.”
Monica Martinez, a University of Texas at Austin history professor, said the law is almost being implemented by parents, who are misinformed on what critical race theory is and are being asked to “hunt it out” in schools by different groups.
“What unfortunately can result is that accusations are made and different school districts are being pressured to act quickly,” Martinez said. “My concern is that these laws are going to be interpreted by parents or they’re going to be encouraged to interpret it.”
School boards across the country are being bombarded by parents who are fearful of this theory being taught in schools, Martinez said. The vagueness of Texas’ law also doesn’t help educators and school administrators who will scramble to not get in trouble.
In Dallas, a group called Save Texas Kids is calling for parents or anyone with knowledge of critical race theory being taught in schools to report it. The group is headed by Natalie Cato, a former Trump campaign field organizer.
Clay Robison, Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson, said teachers are going to suffer if cases like Whitfield’s keep arising in Texas. Going into election years, this debate has and will continue to become political and will be heavily discussed in school board elections, Robison said.
“It's a shame that our teachers are put in this position of being careful that they don't step on some kind of political landmine when all they’re trying to do is teach history, and teach the truth about our history,” Robison said.
As Whitfield’s fate is close to being decided, the prospect of not having a job isn’t keeping him awake at night. Instead, he said what’s making him lose sleep is that children are watching his case and that other educators could be next, especially educators of colors who are already scarce in Texas.
“Right now they’re experiencing firsthand and seeing with their own eyes what it can be like to be a Black man in America,” Whitfield said. “And you know what might be the long-term impact on these children? Do we have children that would have chosen to go into a career in education but see this and they’re like, ‘No, I certainly do not want to go down that path.’”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article used the phrase “stir stuff up.” That paraphrase of what Whitfield said was changed to the words he himself used: “rock the boat.”
Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Boards, the Texas State Teachers Association and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news, curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Learn more.
Correction, Sept. 20, 2021: A photo caption on this story incorrectly identified an independent school district. It is Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, not Garland-Colleyville ISD.