|The audience at the school board meeting represented both side of the name change debate.|
That vote was taken after the board rejected a motion to delay a vote on a name change until October.
The motion to change the name, presented by Sandy Evans (Mason), says the name of JEB Stuart High School should be changed “no later than the start of the 2019 school year.”
It calls for the board to “direct staff to start the renaming process this fall and that as part of that process – in the spirit of compromise and in recognition of the need to minimize costs as well as the desire for continuity by alumni,” it calls for staff to request the Stuart community consider Stuart High School as the new name. “The board further directs staff to create a mechanism for private funding with the expectation that private funding will pay for a substantial portion of the costs.”
Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee), and Thomas Wilson (Sully) voted against Evans’ motion. Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) abstained.
Values of inclusion
Speaking in support of her motion, Evans said there is a compelling need to change the name to better reflect the values of inclusion and diversity embraced by the board.
While a majority of respondents to a survey opposed a name change, “a significant number of students, alumni, and community members want the change,” Evans said. “Students today are telling me they find the Confederate name offensive. I don’t think we need to do this by plebiscite to determine if this is the right thing to do.”
The decision to name the school for JEB Stuart, a general in the Confederate army and slave owner, was approved in 1958, she noted. That was a few years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, when Virginia’s leaders were engaged in a “disgraceful period of massive resistance” against school integration.
“We don’t know what was in the hearts and minds” of the school board members that named the school for Stuart, as there is not much in the public record about how that decision was made, Evans said.
Now, however, “It’s time to make a clear statement that a Confederate symbol is no longer fitting for a school in Fairfax County,” Evans said. The school should be “welcoming to everyone. . . . We need to educate all children in a discrimination-free, equitable, and inclusive environment.”
The community will be asked to consider alternative names, Evans said. Changing the name to “Stuart High School” is one suggestion. “That doesn’t mean the board has decided on that name.”
Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) spoke in favor of Evans’ resolution, stating, “we are not erasing history,” as many of those fighting to keep the name JEB Stuart argued; “what we’re doing is writing the next chapter.”
Setting a precedent
The substitute motion, proposed by Derenak Kaufax, called for the superintendent to define “compelling need” and “community,” review the name-changing process, update the board at its Sept. 14 meeting and submit a recommendation to the board in October.
McLaughlin, Wilson, Schultz, and Karen Corbett Sanders (Mount Vernon) also spoke in support of the motion to delay a decision. Their main argument is that the board failed to follow its own regulations by proceeding with a vote. Instead, they said, the board should have directed the superintendent to engage the community in the process.
“We’re making up the rules as we go along,” Schultz said.
Those who spoke against the motion to delay – Dalia Palchik (Providence), Evans, and Hynes – said there have already been many discussions within the community and during lengthy board work sessions. “This is our decision to make. We can’t keep kicking this down the road,” said Hynes.
Both Schultz and McLaughlin expressed the concern that renaming Stuart will lead to calls for renaming dozens of other schools named for people associated with the Confederacy.
McLaughlin, who noted that Woodson High School is named for a superintendent who served during the period of “massive resistance,” said the board needs to follow its own regulations so it will be in a better position to address future challenges to school names.
Wilson spoke in defense of Stuart’s military career and charged, “student opinion has been largely disregarded or misrepresented.” He said the issue has been so divisive, it has created a toxic climate within the school.
Niharika Vattikonda, the student representative on the school board, doesn’t have a vote, but urged her follow board members to change the school name, noting the name change campaign was started by students “who are offended as they walk by the JEB Stuart sign every day.”
Righting a historical wrong
Speaking in favor of Evan’s motion, Ilryong Moon (at large) called upon the board to make a courageous decision. “I don’t know how the descendants of slaves feel. When they say they are still hurt, who am I to say they shouldn’t feel that way?”
“The time is now for the board to right a historical wrong,” said Ryan McElveen (at large), in urging the board to vote for the name change motion.
In response to those who brought up the issue of changing the names of roads and parks, McElveen said, “Our schools are central to our idea of community. They are alive with learning, with dreaming, and with inspiring. They are physical manifestations of our hope for a better future.”
Noting that a third of the survey respondents want a change, McElveen said, “if we waited for a majority to support civil rights, we would never be where we are today,” Before Brown, two-thirds of the public opposed desegregation, and in 1955, more than 80 percent of Southerners opposed having black students in their children’s schools.
“The rights of the minority should never be disregarded,” he said. “It’s up to us to do what’s right. We were elected to lead.”