The Virginia school district of Fairfax County, the tenth largest in the nation, has decided to update its policy concerning school names — a move which could mean a change for schools named after Confederate generals.
The reform comes as a result of a push from students, community members, and alumni to change the names of two high schools named after Confederate generals, J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee, as well as a third high school named for a former superintendent, W.T. Woodson, who did not approve of desegregation. Supporters of the change argue that the names were given to show that the district did not support desegregation efforts and were now effectively forcing students to celebrate the Confederacy.
In a unanimous vote, the school board decided to change its policy with regards to naming schools, which had previously not allowed officials to change school names unless the building was going to be repurposed. The new policy now allows the board to change the name “where some other compelling need exists.”
Community members began to seek a name change for the schools in June after nine black members of a church were fatally shot by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina. That event caused a number of towns across the country to take a second look at places that had been named for Confederate figures and others who supported slavery or segregation, writes Mike Kennedy for American School and University.
A petition on the issue, “Rename Confederate and Segregation-themed public schools in Fairfax County, Virginia,” is currently on change.org, and has gathered over 1,250 signatures so far, including some celebrities such as actress Julianne Moore and director Bruce Cohen, who both attended school there. The petition needs about 35,000 more signatures in order to see the school’s name be changed.
“The students that walk the hallowed halls of our school in 2015 are a more diverse group than ever,” the petition says, “and they deserve a school name that represents something more germane to where we are today, not represented by Confederate history that was recycled in the 1950s for a hateful purpose: to hurt and shame black youth that were, by court order, integrated into our county’s white school system.”
Meanwhile, other petitions exist asking that the names remain unchanged from advocates for the celebration of “Southern heritage,” who argue that such changes will erase Southern history, writes Casey Quinlan for ThinkProgress.
School board member Elizabeth Schultz said she did support changing the name of one high school to support Thurgood Marshall, the first black US Supreme Court Justice, because a George Marshall high school is already in existence in the country. Instead, she suggested naming it after former President Ronald Reagan, who signed the federal law that created Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Schultz previously opposed efforts to offer protection to LGBT teachers, staff, and students, being the only member to vote against a nondiscrimination policy for teachers, staff and students of all sexual orientations last year. She argued that there were already too many “protected classes.”
While no community hearings are currently scheduled to discuss the name changes, the policy change does allow for that to happen.