|School board member Sandy Evans speaks at a community meeting at Stuart High School.|
This was the first step in a process initiated by the Fairfax County School Board in a community engagement process on a potential name change. In 2015, students, alumni, and local residents began pressing the school board to change the name because they felt it’s no longer appropriate for a school to honor JEB Stuart, a Confederate general.
|Members of the Stuart community consider the implications of changing the school's name.|
The school board will post the comments online, then will figure out what the next step should be, says school board member Sandy Evans (Mason District).
The original plan for the meeting called for a discussion of possible alternative names for the school. That didn’t happen, as the school board determined the first priority should be determining whether the name should be changed or not. Acording to Evans, “people were not comfortable soliciting names.”
An FCPS survey found overwhelming opposition to a name change, but that didn’t deter those who want a change. Several people said the survey doesn’t truly reflect public opinion, and that the issue should not be decided on the basis of a flawed survey.
“The decision to change the name of JEB Stuart HS is not a plebiscite,” states a handout from a group who supports a name change. “Justice, equality, and human rights are never served when the rights of the minority are subject to the whims of the majority.”
According to the survey results, 56 percent of 3,414 respondents oppose changing the name of Stuart High School, and 35 percent support a name change. Eight percent had no opinion.
|Left to right: Bruce Cohen, school board chair Pat Hynes, and school board member Sandy Evans.|
Evans said she was “impressed with the conversations” going on at the meeting. “People were being very thoughtful and interacting with each other.” She encourages people to email her their comments on a name change. She’s already received lots of “long, involved, passionate letters from people on both sides.”
Most of the negative comments Evans heard are about the costs associated with a name change. “That is a legitimate question,” she says. According to FCPS, a name change could cost as much as $778,000, including signage, scoreboards, logos, and sports and band uniforms.
Bruce Cohen, the Hollywood producer and Stuart alum who supports a name change, says, “I’m here because I loved JEB Stuart High School my whole life and I feel the name is wrong and it’s time to change it.” An online petition posted by Cohen and former classmate Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore has so far gotten more than 34,800 signatures.
Cohen, who was in the area visiting his parents in Lake Barcroft, believes the survey results should not be a deciding factor. “If a small segment of the school’s students are offended or hurt by everything that the school’s name stands for, that should be enough.”
“If you look at social justice issues, 35 percent is more than enough to initiate change,” he says.
|Logo on a cafeteria table.|
It was only after the massacre at an African American church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015 by a white supremacist flaunting a Confederate flag that the symbolism “struck a chord with people,” he says.
At Stuart, Cohen was in the drama club, was 10th and 11th grade class president, and was voted “most likely to succeed,” he recalls. His upcoming projects include a boxing movie, “Bleed for This,” to open on Thanksgiving, and a miniseries about the LBGT movement set to air on ABC next February.
“I understand and appreciate the concerns about costs,” but changing the name is “the right thing to do,” says Kofi Annan, a member of the Fairfax County NAACP. The cost issue can be addressed by phasing in the name change, but it needs to be done to “accommodate the concerns of all citizens,” he says. “It’s an important symbolic change.”
A name change is “long overdue,” says Stanley Chin, a parent, who noted that the school was named for Stuart as a result of Virginia’s refusal to integrate schools after Brown.
Another Stuart parent and name change proponent, Kenneth Longmyer, wants Stuart to be named for Barbara Rose Johns, who as a teenager fought for school integration in Prince Edward County, Va. Several other name change advocates would like to see the school named for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had argued the Brown case before the Supreme Court and lived in Lake Barcroft.
Stuart senior Mena Mohamed, who’s heading to Georgetown in the fall, says she supports a name change, noting that the campaign started with students and that the issue has encouraged students to participate in civic engagement. If the name is changed, her personal choice for an alternative is “Peace Valley High School” in recognition of the school’s location on Peace Valley Lane.
Kiran Zaidi, a senior who serves as SGA treasurer, said the name should be changed because the school was named for Stuart “to make blacks feel intimidated to come to school. Our school is diverse; the name should represent us.”
“Every other school named for a significant person has a bio about that person on the school’s website. Stuart’s website doesn’t say anything about Stuart,” Zaidi notes. That indicates “we’re kind of ashamed of what he stood for.”
Campbell Palmer, president of the Stuart Boosters Club, says he’s not opposed to a name change, as long as the costs would be covered by FCPS and not the community, but he also says the focus should be shifted to addressing the school’s academic needs.
The cost is a big issue for Booster Club member and parent David Harrell, who opposes a name change. Changing the name “would do nothing to raise test scores,” he says.
According to Harrell, the Booster Club already has to raise $30,000 to $35,000 a year for things like sports equipment and uniforms and now the club has to reimburse FCPS $15,000 a year for the school’s share of the cost of the new turf field.
Also, he says, “it’s unfair to single out JEB Stuart High School when we have Robert E. Lee High School and Thomas Jefferson High School. Why stop here? Lord Fairfax owned thousands of slaves.”
|Meeting attendees write down their thoughts on a name change.|
According to Norton, the Class of 1966 appeared to be “strongly divided” on a name change, although a formal vote was not taken.
About 75 members of the class took a tour of Stuart on May 21. The diversity of the school now is in stark contrast to what it was in 1966, says alum Nancy Mills. In her day, Stuart was “overwhelming white,” with about three African-Americans among the school’s 400 students.
Mills had been active in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s and says some of her classmates were uncomfortable with the school’s name, but “it was not something anyone put energy into.”
Those at the reunion who opposed the name change had two main reasons, she says: “You can’t erase history” and changing the name “would reflect badly on them.” Some of her former classmates felt that people nowadays would perceive former students as racist.
Mills, however, believes the name should be changed, because “it causes pain and discomfort for students and does nothing to inspire them.”