Support for principal leads to online attacks
Photo: Courtesy Samantha Zelling
Samantha Zelling, far left, with her principal, James Whitfield, and two other Colleyville Heritage students

By Ben Tinsley

As one of the very few Jewish student voices at Colleyville Heritage High School, Samantha Zelling fears losing the guidance of the strong mentor and advocate she has in Principal James Whitfield.

Samantha, 17, a 12th grader at the school, said Whitfield is well-known for being super-caring, easy to approach and always present at student and sports events.

“He is everything you want in a principal,” she said. “If a student came to him with a concern, he would definitely try to help and make things better.”

Samantha said Whitfield has provided her with a strong feeling of security and respect in her school. 

But Whitfield essentially lost his job after a community member at a recent school board meeting publicly accused him of being a practitioner of critical race theory, which he characterized as a conspiracy theory, and called for him to be fired.

Critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship and an academic movement to examine the intersection of race and law. Some political experts fear that many who tout concern about CRT — which has evolved into a political buzz-phrase — don’t really understand it or how it is practiced.

Members of the Grapevine Colleyville Independent School District board sent Whitfield a disciplinary letter after that meeting. 

He was first placed on administrative leave and at a later meeting the board unanimously voted not to renew Whitfield’s contract for the next school year.

The board alleges he committed numerous infractions including communication problems, insubordination, failure to meet the letter of board policies and improper professional conduct, according to reports.

They alleged he failed to maintain community relationships that were effective and divided the community.

The principal told parents that removing him from his job was not the result of complaints made by the community.

In communication through social media, Whitfield was emphatic that the real reason he is under investigation is because he is the first African-American to be principal at his school. 

“I am keenly aware of how much fear this strikes in the hearts of a small minority who would rather things go back to the way they used to be,” the principal wrote.

In a brief message to the TJP, the principal said he wouldn’t be able to talk before press time.

Samantha, meanwhile, said she is trying hard to make sense of why all this is happening. And her public support has resulted in a backlash of antisemitic rhetoric on her Instagram site. 

After she was quoted on the issue in a Washington Post article, her comments came to the attention of an unspecified conservative website, resulting in numerous verbal attacks. 

She received hateful, hurtful comments such as “six million were not enough.”

Samantha said she was astounded at the volume.

”Around here, I’m the only Jew a lot of people actually know, and they don’t harass me,” Samantha said. “But online, it’s a different story. So many people have been posting horrible things on my account. Not to anyone else [in the article] that I can tell. Just me.”

Samantha was quick to defend against the online attacks. In one post, she said: “…I will never stop advocating against inequality and injustice, no matter what the backlash.” 

And that advocacy won’t stop. Samantha is continuing to monitor the fate of the principal she respects so much. 

“He’s being randomly targeted for random things, so of course his students are going to support him,” she said. “We still don’t know the real reason he was put on paid leave. …  I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and I really think we should do something.”

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