STATE NEWS: Black principal swept into a ‘critical race theory’ maelstrom in a mostly white Texas suburb

by Brian Lopez
TexasTribune.org

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.

Whitfield

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.

This story was edited for length. See the full story at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/09/18/colleyville-principal-critical-race-theory/

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