The past few days have been a whirlwind for James Whitfield.
Whitfield, the first-ever Black principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, has been in a monthslong battle with community members over critical race theory, which, despite far-right fearmongering, acknowledges the country’s long history of racism and the resulting inequity that factors into policymaking.
Whitfield’s battle goes back to a 2020 letter he sent to parents regarding the murder of George Floyd, in which he wrote that systemic racism is “alive and well.” He received only support regarding the letter until a year later during a July 26 school board meeting’s open forum, when a former school board candidate called systemic racism a conspiracy theory and accused Whitfield of promoting critical race theory. He then called for Whitfield to be fired, which was met with cheers from the crowd.
Weeks after the July 26 meeting, the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District sent Whitfield a disciplinary letter and he was placed on administrative leave Aug. 30. It all came to a head Monday night when the majority-white school board unanimously voted not to renew Whitfield’s contract for the next school year, citing deficiencies in communication, insubordination, failure to comply with board policies, failure to meet professional conduct, dividing the community, and failure to maintain effective relationships with the community.
A representative for the school district, however, did not provide any specific examples of the alleged behavior. And through his lawyer, Whitfield said he can’t comment on something he has no knowledge of.
Controversy over critical race theory has been roiling the school district for months. Shannon Braun, a school board member who ran on the platform that critical race theory shouldn’t be taught in schools, received national attention earlier this year when her brother, Chip Gaines of Fixer Upper fame, donated $1,000 to her campaign. In a statement at the time, the district said its schools do not teach critical race theory. Still, members of the public Facebook group GCISD Parents for Strong Schools regularly post anti–critical race theory articles.
Whitfield told BuzzFeed News that people shouldn’t get caught up in the critical race theory “battle” because it’s not even being taught in public schools.
“What they’re attacking is anything with a semblance of an inclusive, equitable, and welcoming environment that celebrates diversity,” Whitfield said. “That’s what the attack is on. While they don’t want to talk about systemic racism, they don’t want to acknowledge that that’s a thing.
"Essentially, their actions and what they’re doing to educators of color, such as myself and other educators, is upholding systemic racism, but it’s like they can’t see past what their agenda is. And their agenda is set on anything that disrupts public education. That is what this group is set out to do.”
Whitfield has his supporters, though. Before the vote Monday night, dozens of students, parents, and community members spoke in favor of reinstating him as principal, and some school board members even expressed regret about how they allowed the situation to unravel.
School board member Coley Canter asked her kids to learn from her mistakes for not speaking up when Whitfield was “unjustly attacked.” Still, she and the six others on the board voted not to renew Whitfield’s contract. Whitfield called her vote “disappointing.”
“She even came up to me before the meeting and gave me a hug and said, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry. You know I love you, and I'm going to let everybody know how I feel about you tonight,’” Whitfield said.
Canter told BuzzFeed News on Thursday she can’t comment on anything regarding the situation. The president of the school board did not respond to a request for comment.
Whitfield said that, based on what people in the community are saying, he’s their “biggest fear.”
“I think I was the quintessential bogeyman for them,” Whitfield said. “It made it really easy for them based on my race and who I aspire to be as an educator. And it’s really easy for them to spark fear in people that have no idea of who I am.”
Monday’s vote was just the first part in a two-step process. Whitfield will now get the chance to tell the board his side of the story.
In a statement, the district said it's working “carefully” to “adhere to appropriate procedures and laws regarding the proposed nonrenewal of an employee’s contract.”
“GCISD remains focused on educating every child in our outstanding school district as we await Dr. Whitfield’s decision about whether he will request a hearing before the Board of Trustees,” the statement added.
Whitfield said he wants to get back to the students.
“I’ve been caught up in other people’s agendas,” he said. “My only agenda is serving kids and making sure that every student walking those halls has access to a great education. They feel celebrated, they feel welcomed each day, they feel nurtured. They have an opportunity to grow. That’s what I hope we can get back to doing because I think that’s what we’re missing in this whole thing.”