Dear Grapevine-Colleyville ISD
Well, my my my.
You seem to be in a bit of a hole.
No, I take that back.
You are in a big hole. A deep, big, embarrassing hole. It is, at the very least, a major PR black hole. It may also be a legal hole.
You have a school principal now suspended (albeit on full pay) because you may have been paying attention and listening to the wrong people.
One of the enduring myths of service in the USA (although the myth does exist elsewhere) is that the Customer Is Always Right.
Logical, huh? After all, without customers, many businesses would cease to exist. So, if they need customers to survive and thrive, then those customers deserve the best service and deserve to be treated well.
However, as you will discover after a while, there is a difference between treating people well, and obsequiously catering to their every desire, need or want, even when that desire, need or want is batshit crazy, stupid, or, worse still, damaging to your business.
That is not catering to needs, or engaging in great customer service. That’s called pandering.
If you do not understand the road you are heading down, pandering leads to spineless capitulation to increasingly stupid and dangerous demands from people.
Based on what I have read, you are in this hole partly because you have been pandering to stupid, racist and irrelevant demands, either from parents, or from people purporting to represent parents.
This is stupid on several levels.
Firstly, it is stupid, because your parents are NOT your customers. The customers are your students. Your parents may be paying the bills for your students, via their school taxes, but your primary duty of care is to the students. If they flunk out of college because you gave them a shitty high school education, that’s on you. The parents have flunked nothing. You failed to prepare their children for that next phase of their education. You might want to remind the next parent that storms into your office and starts ranting about some real or perceived injustice that they are not your customer, their children are. Will it shut them up? Probably not. Entitled parents usually only shut up when they are breathing in, or when they are gagged. But it might make them think for a wee second.
Secondly, it is stupid, because, by essentially terminating the career in GCISD of the first African-American principal in the district (let’s not be cute here, by suspending him, you have made it impossible for him to continue in his role), you are begging the asking of all sorts of awkward questions. Question #1 is Why. Absent a compelling, legally viable answer to that question, Question #2 will show up really quickly. Question #2 is “how come this just happened to the first African-American principal?”.
As politicians are fond of saying, amidst their massive collection of in-group cliches, Question #2 has terrible optics. You and I both know what the subtext is, and it is a bad subtext. Really bad.
So what is the answer to Question #1?
Well, that is where you start to look even more stupid. Based on what I have read, (and here is an article from NBCDFW), in 2019 you decided to criticize the principal, based on the discovery of pictures of him and his wife on the beach…on social media. This was not a nude beach, both the principal and his wife were wearing clothing, and several of the images, clearly taken by a professional photographer, seemed to comprise a re-enactment of the famous beach seduction scene from the movie “From Here To Eternity“. A movie that these days is regarded as classic, good old fashioned entertainment.
The word seemingly used in communications about the photos was “questionable”. If that is what you think, then OK. What questions do you have about them?
I think you should have to answer. You don’t get to use ambiguous words in a statement and not have to explain them. That’s not how the world works. You’re accountable to the citizens of Grapevine and Colleyville.
But, since the photos were clearly taken in the principal’s private time (on vacation), I think I already have a question for you. Whose damned business is it anyway?
You employ (or in reality, you did employ) James Whitfield to lead and manage a middle school. You do not own him. He is not a slave or an indentured servant. You have no control over his life outside of school time. You do expect him (as is your right) to uphold the standards of the district in his life, but photos of him with his wife on vacation cannot be said in any way to be a bad reflection on the school district.
So, my question stands. Who in the school district leadership thought this was any of your damned business? Because from where I am viewing this, any admonishment to him about the visibility of the photos was irrelevant, vexatious and way out of line. It was, quite simply, an abuse of power.
But continuing with Question #1 (Why?), it now seems that you suspended James Whitfield, not for this supposed infraction, but possibly because some parents, in July 2021, accused him of teaching Critical Race Theory in the school.
This is even more stupid. First of all, as a principal, I would be surprised if he actually does any significant teaching. So if Critical Race Theory was (or is) being taught, he probably wasn’t teaching it.
Secondly, your job is not to pander to the curriculum demands of a few parents. They are not your customers (remember what I said earlier?) There is also an old saying that empty vessels make the most noise. If you did not poll all of the parents at the middle school (and no, you do not ask parents from other schools, and you especially do NOT listen to people with no skin in the game, like non-residents) to determine if these parents are at all representative of the views of all of the parents, you were professionally negligent.
A few loud, yelling parents does not mean anything in the grand scheme of things. You know as well as I do that there are always unhappy parents, for many different reasons, and you cannot please everybody all of the time. That is NOT your job, partly because it is impossible, and partly because it elevates the loud whinings of the few to a higher level of importance than the quiet of the many.
You also should not be paying attention to and readily accepting hyperbolic claims being made by former candidates for School board positions, like Stetson Clark. Hyperbole is a poor basis for credible argument. You should also be putting accusers on the spot. If you were an observer in a court room, you would expect to see prosecution witnesses being cross-examined in order to validate or expose flaws, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in their statements or testimony.
If an angry parent gets up in front of me and accuses one of my leaders of teaching Critical Race Theory, I am going to want to see if that person can answer one or two fundamental questions:
- What is your definition of Critical Race Theory (HINT: A lot of people cannot define it, because they are using it as a weaponized slogan)
- What compelling evidence do you have that it is being taught in a school in this district
Answers to (2) that are hearsay or speculation, like “some people told me that they think that the school might be teaching it” need to be filleted up and tossed back on the ground. Preferably buried underground where they belong.
You have to perform due diligence, otherwise you start to look credulous, gullible and professionally negligent. If you didn’t do that sort of due diligence, shame on you.
Oh yes. You should have gaveled Stetson Clark off the podium immediately, the second time he violated the meeting rule by mentioning Dr. Whitfield’s name. You warned him once, he ignored the rule and the warning, which showed that he was not acting in good faith. That cancels any obligation on your part to let him continue speaking. The rules are there for a reason.
The fact that you suspended James Whitfield with no explanation is just…optically bad. There is no good way of explaining that event. You suspended him on full pay, which suggests that you currently lack any case to terminate him for cause, or presumably you would have already done so.
Your failure to articulate any reason for the suspension, given the fact that he is African-American, is, given the recent allegations and other past events, the equivalent of sending up a large hot-air balloon with “pandering to race-based fear” stenciled on the side of it in very large letters. Optics. Abysmal. There are good legal reasons for staying silent, but that is not a good place for a school district to be for any length of time.
If you had evidence that the school was teaching Critical Race Theory, where is it? If you had any other evidence of malfeasance, where is it? You should have, at the least, had all of this sorted out before the news leaked out that he has been suspended. Instead, right now James Whitfield can play the aggrieved party. He is actually being very restrained, probably because he is already being advised by lawyers.
The prior abuse of power over his family images means that, in my humble opinion, James Whitfield is probably sitting at home right now, trying to decide exactly which prestigious firm of employment lawyers will represent him in his upcoming lawsuit against the GCISD. I suspect that your options, unless you have a compelling non-public reason for action, might center around how many zeroes to the left of the decimal point his compensation check will prevent him from dragging you all the way through discovery. Discovery would result in the reasons for his suspension becoming public domain.
There is going to be collateral damage. Like appearing at the top of Google Search for the wrong reasons. Instead of your glorious football teams, the search results will show lines like “terminated principal wins settlement after suspension following Critical Race Theory allegations”.
You could have avoided this mess, if you had actually engaged in proper dialogue with ranting parents, and then thought long and hard before reacting. Parents are not always right, and you should not be pandering to their worst behavioral impulses.
My message to the School board: Those of you who supported this train-wreck have dragged down the name of the entire GCISD, and have sent the message to the outside world that both Grapevine and Colleyville have dysfunctional school districts, where scurrilous rumors and abusive speculation can override sound, ethical and visionary leadership. The school district and the cities now look like repositories of casual suburban racism. You’re culpable for helping to convert the school district to a poster child for that, a place where no sensible leader is going to want to work. If there is any justice in the world, you need to be voted out of office at your next election.
My message to the School district leadership that made these decisions: If you worked for me, I would give you all 24 hours to resign, or I would terminate all of you for cause. The causes would be: abuse of power, gullibility, pandering, and total failure of leadership.
My message to the parents who did not want James Whitfield removed: This is what happens when a loud and malevolent minority seizes control of the dialogue. The school district leadership and the school board did not represent your interests, and you need to be much more vigilant. Crackpots and wackaloons can easily be elected to or influence school boards. You will have to make sure it does not happen in future.
UPDATE – The school district has issued this statement which seems to list all of the reasons that were not causes for the suspension of Principal Whitfield.
I am not sure exactly why they did this, but I have to assume that it is part of a legal CYA process for them. It would have been better for them to have said absolutely nothing. The statement cannot answer the question of why they suspended him. The reasons will not be revealed unless the district has no choice, but if he decides to sue the district, and there is no settlement, that will end up being revealed in discovery.
I would bet that any lawsuit, if there is one, will be settled confidentially. The complaint, if there is one, will probably be some form of hostile work environment complaint, based on the abuse of power over the photos and the failure to defend him and his school from the rush to judgement on the allegations of the teaching of Critical Race Theory.
UPDATE 2 – A Twitter user who thinks that Principal Whitfield is playing the race card and whining about white fragility directed me to this website.
This website is new, having been created on or shortly after April 7th 2021. The domain creator is hidden, and the site, superficially, tries to look like a non-partisan site that covers events and policy in the school district.
That only lasts until their page on Critical Race Theory, which is a distorted strawman collection, pushing all of the white fear and resentment buttons. It contains the usual slew of allegations, with several cut-and-paste polemics, including one from the Heritage Organization, containing lines like “Critical race theory is an ideology which maintains that the United States is a fundamentally racist country”. It is the usual theme of “people need to stop talking the country down and instead talk it up, and stop trying to make us look and feel bad”. The writer of the web page even shows the cover of the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo at the top. I am not sure how they think that makes their complaints about CRT any more credible, because to my reading eye, what is on the rest of the page kind of proves most of the point she was making in the book. (Not that the book is that good, since, as many reviewers pointed out, it is long on diagnosis and short on suggested solutions).
UPDATE – The GCISD board has, by unanimous vote, proposed not renewing Dr. Whitfield’s contract, which expires at the end of the school year. Based on this article from CNN, it seems that the board, aware that violation of due process will likely result in legal action, are attempting to obey a formal administrative process of asking Whitfield to respond to the allegations against him.
The meeting was, by all accounts, dominated by supporters of Dr. Whitfield, who all spoke in his favor in the public comments period. Dr. Whitfield was also there and spoke briefly. The list of accusations against him does not look substantive. When I read that the allegations against him include claims that he was “insubordinate”, “unreasonable” and “disrespectful”, my BS detector is triggered. I have heard these phrases used in the past in a post hoc justification of terminations. They are allegations largely based on perceived style, and without specific examples, they end up sounding to many neutral observers like “we didn’t like the person on a personal level”. To an African-American person, this also reads like a variant of the classic complaint of white racists about AA people being “uppity” and “not knowing their place”. Whitfield has apparently requested that as much as possible of the process be held in public. This, to me, suggests that he intends to try and put the school district in a hole of their own making over his imminent non-retention.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram points out the obvious; that the public falling-out with Dr. Whitfield is going to have a negative impact on the district’s ability to recruit teachers and administrators.