All around him, in the well-appointed brick high school that serves Sean's affluent, mostly White, conservative hometown, other children were doing the same. Like Sean, an Asian American who said reading books by Angela Davis raised his racial consciousness, most of those leaving were students of color. Most of those staying put were White.
Sean Vo, 18, Sunehra Chowdhury, 17, and Grace Nguyen, 17, lead a student walk-out in early September at Colleyville Heritage High School to protest the suspension of their high school's first Black principal, James Whitfield.
Photo for The Washington Post by Nitashia Johnson.
Close to a hundred teenagers eventually streamed through the glass doors of Colleyville Heritage High School on Sept. 9, wincing at the sunlight and at the mostly White administrators lined up against a wall to watch.
Sean, who will perform in Colleyville Heritage's fall play, "Mousetrap," led the students through the parking lot to a red car, where they grabbed posters scrawled with sharpie slogans - "STUDENT VOICES MATTER," "Our Youth Will Lead Us" - before marching around campus once and returning to the front of the school.
"You guys are amazing," Sean told the group, then turned to face the line of adults.
Sean walked closer, until he was inches from a man in a cowboy hat who was looking down at his watch, not meeting the teens' eyes.
"Hey hey, what do you say?" Sean shouted through his mask, gesturing to the other students to start chanting, too. "Dr. Whitfield is here to stay!"
They were defending James Whitfield, the first Black principal ever to lead Colleyville Heritage High. His treatment by White district officials was the reason the teens had walked out of class. It was why they would stay outside for five hours in 93-degree heat that Thursday. It was why they would leave class again the next day to spend another five hours marching around campus chanting, "No more silence! No more lies! We will not be victimized!"
Whitfield's job was in danger. Over the summer, White adults had accused the principal of embracing critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that argues racism in America is systemic. Critical race theory has become a target for conservatives around the country. Texas passed two controversial laws this year meant to ban any mention of it from public school classrooms.
In a lengthy Facebook post in July, Whitfield denied the allegations against him, suggesting he was being targeted for his race and because his marriage to a White woman made some people uncomfortable.
Shortly after the start of school, the White superintendent of the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District placed Whitfield on paid leave. Rumors began circulating online and in the hallways that the district planned to fire Whitfield at the next school board meeting.
Colleyville was a community where almost no one talked about race and where, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a Republican candidate for city council once lost a race because people circulated a picture of her posing with Barack Obama. The town voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and again in 2020.
The teens of color here had learned early on, from parents or older siblings: The way to get along in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth was to fit in with the dominant White culture. For years, that meant students of color, LGBTQ teens, those from low-income families and those of minority faiths kept quiet about their beliefs and traditions, the languages they spoke and food they ate at home and most of all about the racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and homophobia that they experienced in school.
Most stayed silent even after George Floyd's killing rocked America in the summer of 2020, spurring a reckoning in many places that had long avoided acknowledging racism.
Whitfield, now 43, set out to change that, creating a diversity advisory committee with student members to elevate minority voices and give students greater input into school rules.
"For so long, students or people of color, any time we've brought up issues of race . . . it's always turned back on you," he said in an interview. "It's, 'Well, just focus on moving on.' 'Don't worry about those people.'"
In the year he served as principal, the teens came to view him as a symbol of the change they hoped to see in their hometown. His removal would symbolize something else.
Sean and four other seniors - Samantha Zelling, Sunehra Chowdhury, Grace Nguyen and Kristen Garsaud, all 17 - organized the protests to demand Whitfield's reinstatement.
None of them had any experience with racial justice demonstrations; neither did most of the teens walking out of school. They knew what they were doing could alienate White classmates, teachers, even their own parents.
Already, some school staffers and coaches were threatening to strip protesting students of leadership positions and playing time.
"It's valid to be scared about punishments and consequences," Sean wrote to more than 200 students in a planning group chat ahead of the walk-out. But "don't be afraid. They want to instill fear in us. They want us to follow the rules they set to make sure we can't speak out about things like this."
Near the end of the first walk-out, Sunehra grabbed a megaphone and pointed to a strip of grass by the road. Following her, the teens came face-to-face with a long line of cars, including several Teslas that glittered in the sun. Colleyville parents were queuing to pick up their children from an elementary school across the way.
Sunehra, who is Bangladeshi and Muslim and wants to work in art conservation someday, thought back to her own time in a Colleyville middle school - the middle school just across the road - when classmates asked her why her father "did 9/11." She thought about how, until sophomore year of high school, one of her best friends spoke to Sunehra using a crude, sing-song approximation of a South Asian accent.
Sunehra took a gulp of hot Texas air and yelled the instructions she wished someone gave her a long time ago.
"Make yourselves loud!" she said, gesturing first at the students, then at the parents. "Let them know how you feel!"
- - -
The five seniors all had stories like Sunehra's. They'd never felt comfortable in their own community.
Located a half-hour drive from both Fort Worth and Dallas, Colleyville - a suburban idyll of huge homes set atop sweeping green lawns, where the median household income tops $160,000 - is 90% White. The high school is more diverse: Colleyville Heritage's 2,000 students are 53% White, 19% Hispanic, 16% Asian, and 6% Black.
So many times, though, the five friends found themselves in classrooms filled with White children and led by White teachers. During the coronavirus pandemic, they began sharing what that felt like for the first time, sometimes over FaceTime or Discord calls and sometimes in-person, speaking through masks under the trees at Parr Park, a favorite hangout spot.
Samantha, who is Jewish and serves as president of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum's junior board, recalled how a classmate made her cry in middle school by entering "Heil Hitler" into her calculator when she wasn't looking. And later, when her older sister ran for the high school's class council, she heard other students warn each other, "Don't vote for the Jew."
Sean and Grace, who are both of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, remembered how classmates used to ask if they were dating, just because they were the only two Asian kids in fifth grade. Grace said groups of popular White boys insisted her good grades didn't count, because Asians always did well. Sean remembered these boys, too, and how they joked that Sean should be eating dogs and cats for lunch - or spoke to him in loud, crude imitations of an Asian accent, swapping l's for r's.
"There were some guys that I was friends with up until middle school - Asian guys, and they would make fun of Asian people," Grace said. "They don't realize the implications, how it makes their White peers think it's okay or even funny to make these kinds of jokes."
Sean looked down at the ground in Parr Park.
"Honestly, I also made those jokes," he said, "thinking it would make White people laugh."
He looked up at Grace, who nodded at him.
For a long time, Sunehra said, she assumed the bullying about being Muslim would peter out as students matured. Then, close to the 2016 presidential election and a year before she was supposed to start high school, Sunehra checked her phone and saw that Colleyville Heritage students had hosted a football pep rally with the theme, "Make Colleyville Great Again." They'd painted a poster to look like a brick wall, evoking Trump's election promise to "Build the Wall."
Flicking through the images, Sunehra felt sick. "It's scary to see that these people don't go away as you grow up," she said.
That feeling was reinforced when a White man named Stetson Clark spoke at a board meeting in late July - a few weeks before Sunehra's senior year, and several weeks after he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board - to accuse Whitfield of promoting critical race theory. As evidence, Clark pointed to Whitfield's social media activity and to a letter the principal sent out shortly after Floyd's killing, in which Whitfield wrote that systemic racism was "alive and well" and asked students and parents to "commit to being an anti-racist." Clark, cheered by the audience, demanded that the board fire Whitfield.
Sunehra and her friends, alerted to Clark's comments by Samantha's mother, decided they had to do something. They began recruiting students to speak in Whitfield's favor at an August board meeting. They started a GroupMe titled "Supporting Whitfield" and invited everyone they thought might be sympathetic, eventually swelling the chat to more than 220 people. And they helped circulate an anonymous online form, created by alumni, to collect stories of harassment teens had experienced at school.
"Been called a monkey and have been said I resemble one cause of my skin color," one student wrote in a submission.
"They call a Jewish boy on the [wrestling] team 'Anne Frank' or 'Jew,'" wrote another. "The coaches know about this as well."
"I was told to go back to my country," wrote a third. "Many people may think what did I do to deserve this. I got the highest test grade in my AP Human Geo class. Keep in mind, I was the only Mexican-American in my class."
District spokeswoman Kristin Snively called the behavior the teens described "unacceptable" and said the school system investigates every allegation of bullying or harassment to ensure all students feel welcome.
More than 30 teens showed up to rally for Whitfield outside the Aug. 23 school board meeting. More than a dozen spoke inside, sharing stories submitted online as well as their own.
Whitfield's treatment by White school district officials, they said, looked like another version of the harassment they'd endured for years at the hands of White classmates.
Afterward, Sunehra, Sean, Samantha, Grace and Kristen felt hopeful - like they'd finally been heard.
They got the email a week later: The superintendent was placing Whitfield on leave.
- - -
On day two of the walk-outs, 17-year-old Caris Enright searched her green drawstring bag for a bottle of sunscreen. An electronic sign outside the middle school across the street recorded the temperature: 94 degrees.
"Sunscreen anyone?" she called.
Caris, who is White, was pleased to see White students protesting alongside their Black, Hispanic and Asian classmates. But she knew many more remained inside, indifferent.
Caris was raised by conservative parents to believe her Christian faith meant she should "lead with love." As early as middle school, she grew tearful when she saw students abused for their skin color, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Her freshman year, she found the courage to speak out, shaming a group of White girls for teasing a transgender teen during choir.
After Floyd's killing, Caris began posting on social media about systemic racism and how White people could help combat it. After the district suspended Whitfield, she saw an opportunity to go further.
She knew her white skin meant other White teens might listen to her when they would dismiss classmates of color. She developed a strategy: She started by asking if students had seen the most recent board meeting or what they thought about Whitfield's suspension. Slowly, she brought the conversation around to racism and the school's long-standing culture of silence. She tried to explain why Whitfield's principalship felt so crucial for so many minority students.
The discussions almost always ended the same way.
"i was talking to a pep boy today," Caris wrote in the "Supporting Whitfield" GroupMe, referring to a White student involved in planning pep rallies. "i asked if he was going to walk out and [he] said 'only if it's during my math class i don't really care about what's going on.'"
Many White teachers were no better - in some cases, worse. A boy reported in the GroupMe just before the second walk-out that one of his teachers was "slamming everyone doing the protest" in class and threatening specific punishments for members of the basketball team. Other educators stood by the high school's front doors, warning students that if they walked outside they could not go back in. Administrators also prevented protesting teens from heading back inside to use the bathroom.
Asked about staff behavior during the walk-outs, Snively said the school wanted to "avoid the disruption of students moving in and out of the building." No students were prevented from joining the protests. Snively added that some of the administrators who stood outside during the walk-outs, watching from the wall, were counselors and support staff ready to help "students in need of emotional support."
As local media coverage mounted, backlash was building among White parents. A Facebook group titled "GCISD Parents for Strong Schools" slammed students for ditching classes, ignoring their responsibilities and "disrupting" learning.
Sometimes, it was the protesters' parents pushing back.
A girl wrote in the GroupMe that her stepfather had called her "anti-American" and suggested she move to Venezuela if she dislikes the United States so much.
Another girl, who had joined the first day's walk-out, wrote that she could not attend the second because "my parents got mad at me."
Kristen Garsaud, who is White and wants to be an oceanographer, avoided telling her parents about the walk-outs until the morning of the second day. Her father is conservative, and she feared how he would react. He was unhappy, she said, but he let her go.
But Grace's parents, after receiving a warning email from administrators that their daughter had earned an "unexcused absence" during the first walk-out, asked her not to join the second one. They were concerned about possible punishment from the school, Grace said - and that it could hurt her college prospects. Grace, who loves to sew and is applying to fashion design programs, obeyed, although she didn't want to.
For Sienna Scruggs, a 15-year-old sophomore at neighboring Grapevine High School, the disapproval was unsurprising. Sienna, whose mother is White and whose father is Black, has never felt welcome in Colleyville. She cannot remember a time when trips to the grocery store did not lead to other adults asking if she was adopted. She and her 10-year-old sister Sophie faced so many questions at school, often from classmates who could not understand why a White woman was driving two Black girls, that their father played them a video of Sophie's birth to prove it.
When she read about the walk-outs on social media, Sienna felt she had to join. She wanted to show support both for the students and for Whitfield, who said he has faced criticism for photos he shared on Facebook showing him and his wife, who is White, celebrating their anniversary on a beach.
On the day of the second walk-out, Sienna rose and left school just before geometry class. Earlier that morning, she had overheard a group of White students call the protests "stupid" and "weird."
The remarks reminded Sienna of hostile messages White teens began sending her on social media after George Floyd's death. A White boy about her own age, referencing the police killing of Breonna Taylor, wrote that "more white killed by police than black . . . but we don't talk about that do we?"
At Colleyville Heritage, Sienna climbed onto a bench and, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ears, addressed the crowd. She hadn't planned to speak, but suddenly felt she must, telling the other teens she was from another high school and admitting she didn't know Whitfield very well.
"If you guys care about him this much, it just shows that he needs to be here," she said. "I stand with Dr. Whitfield, and I stand with the students of Colleyville Heritage High School who want change."
Her voice broke as she added, "We need change!"
- - -
The walk-outs didn't work.
A top district administrator called Whitfield into a meeting on the day of the first walk-out and said the superintendent planned to ask the board to terminate Whitfield's employment contract, the principal said in an interview. Soon after, the superintendent recommended that the board not renew Whitfield's contract for next year. The district still refused to give a reason, citing the need to keep personnel matters private, but a spokesperson said the recommendation was unrelated to complaints about Whitfield teaching critical race theory or to the principal's anniversary photos.
The school board's seven members - six White, one Hispanic - would vote on the issue in late September.
In the students' GroupMe, someone broke the news by sharing an article from a local TV station. The replies poured in: "bruh" "NOOO :((" "They better not!"
One student predicted there would be public outcry, and another replied: "Yeah us."
Samantha picked up her phone, buzzing with notifications, and tapped out her own response: "please record videos and send them to me," she wrote.
She, Sean, Grace, Kristen and Sunehra had already started strategizing. They wanted to flood the Sept. 20 board meeting on every possible front: Students would hold a protest outside beforehand. Others would speak during public comment in Whitfield's favor. And, for those who could not attend in-person, Samantha would gather as much video testimony as possible.
Balancing homework, interview requests from reporters and, for the seniors, college applications, the teens got ready to make their final stand.
On the night of the pivotal board meeting, Whitfield showed up in a blue suit and red tie. He gave a short speech, thanking the teens who walked out of school on his behalf and adding he was sorry some adults were criticizing them. His wife Kerrie spoke afterward, calling her husband "an amazing man" and a "phenomenal educator." Then the couple watched as more than 30 parents, teachers and students - many reading speeches prewritten on their iPhones - took turns behind a wooden lectern. Every single speaker asked the board to reconsider firing Whitfield.
"It has become a method of survival for marginalized students to endure ignorant hate," Sunehra told the board.
Grace said she was sick of an "ever-pervasive culture of silence that shames students for speaking our minds."
Sean approached the lectern in a corduroy jacket and black mask. "I'm done," he said, "being ignored."
Afterward, students traded messages in the GroupMe congratulating the speakers. Then the board moved into a closed meeting and the teens, those in the building and those huddled behind screens at home, settled back to wait.
About an hour later, board members took their seats again as, at their request, executive director of human resources Gemma Padgett walked behind the lectern to explain officials' reasons for removing Whitfield. She accused Whitfield of being "disrespectful, unreasonable and insubordinate," of sowing division in the community, of failing to communicate with colleagues and of unprofessional conduct. She said many of these concerns dated to early 2020, long before the allegations surfaced around critical race theory.
Close to 11 p.m., the board voted 7-0 to formally propose Whitfield's termination. But they emphasized the beleaguered principal could request a hearing to argue against the dismissal.
Two weeks later, he would do so, asking in an Oct. 4 letter to the board for an "open hearing" and a chance to prove he deserves his job. The hearing could take place in the next few weeks.
In the GroupMe after the board vote, though, confused teenagers were just trying to figure out what it all meant. Several people asked what had happened. Someone said she wished live-streamed video of the board meeting came with subtitles. Another student asked if Whitfield was still suspended (he was).
"wait so when are they deciding?" a boy messaged at 11:20 p.m, wondering when the board would take a real, final vote whether to fire Whitfield.
Caris responded in less than a minute: "i don't think we know yet," she wrote. "but we'll be there."
By The Washington Post · Hannah Natanson
Published : October 09, 2021