Local schools question keeping their Confederate namesakes

Three NoVA public schools, each associated with elements of America’s discriminatory history, take different approaches to times of change.

JEB stuart high school
Photo courtesy of Fairfax County Public Schools

Under increased scrutiny due to recent events concerning Confederate monuments, local school boards have been forced to recognize the role a school’s name plays in its corresponding values and ideals. The debate has brought with it the question of whether or not the school naming process needs extensive criteria set in place.

This past summer, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville brought the debate about renaming several Northern Virginia public schools to the forefront. Since then, J.E.B. Stuart High School has chosen to move forward with a name change while Washington-Lee High School is still deciding how they would like to proceed.

Debate about the potential J.E.B Stuart High School renaming became highly visible in 2015 when actress Julianne Moore and producer Bruce Cohen, both alumni, created a petition. Moore recalled a time when the Confederate flag was plastered on both the basketball court and athletic uniforms. In 2001, a solid blue flag eventually replaced the mascot’s Confederate flag.

In a vote on Sept. 16, the community weighed in on their favorite names; Stuart High School/Stuart Raiders received 917 votes,  Justice/Thurgood Marshall received 763 votes and Barbara Rose Johns came in with 737 votes.

On Oct. 26, the school board voted to officially change J.E.B Stuart High School’s name to Justice High School to honor Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and other notable figures who fought for equality.

The name change, which should go into effect during the 2019-2020 school year, will cost approximately $1 million. Fairfax County Public Schools has created a website in the hopes of raising money for the new project, a website that has brought in over $8,000 as of Nov. 3.

“The school board is developing extensive naming criteria to decide if the renaming of schools is necessary,” Linda Erdos, assistant superintendent of Arlington Public Schools says.  “Criteria needs to reflect the values of the community. We are just at the beginning of this conversation.”

Pressure from both sides of the argument has slowed down the potential Washington-Lee High School renaming; the school board is still divided on whether or not they believe it is needed. According to Erdos, if the name change policy is approved this December, the renaming will take at least three months.

For the name to be changed without school board consent, students, parents and staff will have to unanimously decide to change the name of the school and back that decision with good reason. Through opportunities the school has provided for community feedback, some parents have expressed that they are not in favor of a name change.

When it comes to Prince William County—which is home to a fire station, road and three schools that reference the Confederacy—Prince William County’s Chairman At-Large, Corey Stewart, is very much against removing Stonewall Jackson’s name.

“If I can, I will decrease the budget,” Stewart says. “If [the county] can waste money to rename the school, they have too much money.”

“These schools, especially Stonewall Jackson, were named after very brave men who fought for what they thought was the correct cause,” Stewart adds. “We want this ethic to be instilled in our students.”

A Prince William County town hall meeting has not yet been called for the public to offer up their opinions. However, Stewart believes that “the vast majority of Prince William citizens don’t want to change the names of schools. They recognize it as history that you can’t rewrite.”

Frank Principi, Woodbridge District Supervisor, takes a different stance than Stewart, spearheading a movement to change all public facilities’ whose present names honor confederate soldiers.