The Fairfax County School Board voted by a 10-2 margin in favor of creating a working group that consider renaming J.E.B. Stuart High School at the board’s regular meeting on Thursday, July 28. There was contention expressed by board members over the necessity of renaming the school, the manor in the process has played out over the last year and whether or not there should be a working group at all prior to the vote.
Board members Tamara D. Kaufax, Ryan McElveen, Jane K. Strauss, Karen Corbett Sanders, Sandra S. Evans, Patricia Hynes, Ilryong Moon, Tom Wilson, Megan McLaughlin and Dalia Palchik voted in favor of creating the working group. Jeanette Hough and Elizabeth Schultz voted against the measure.
The board voted on a substitute motion, proposed by Kaufax, that replaced the one originally proposed by Evans, the newly elected school board chair and representative of Mason district, where Stuart is located. The substitute motion included a clause about engaging the community over the potential of renaming the school in a “public and transparent manner.”
Karen Garza, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools, will choose the members of the working group in consultation with the school board. The substitute motion also called for “the Full Board” to be consulted in creating the working group, instead of just “the Board,” as was proposed in the original motion. The working group will make up students, parents, community members in the neighborhoods surrounding Stuart in Falls Church, alumni and business and community leaders.
Another addition to Evans’ original motion was that the working group “determine the extent of support” changing the school’s name, which is named after a man who served as a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Several members of the board lauded the substitute motion, saying that it was in line with the revisions to the school board’s naming policy that were passed in December 2015. According to the motion passed at the July 28 school board meeting, the working group will report its findings and recommendations to the School Board by March 2017.
Some of the Stuart students and alumni attempting to get the school’s name changed have spoken out against the pace at which the Fairfax County School Board has taken in considering whether or not to change the school’s name. Lina Lenis, a recent graduate of Stuart, was one of those that criticized the board for their pace at the July 28 meeting.
“As a Hispanic woman, I have experienced what it’s like to be devalued, dismissed and discriminated against. I am sick and tired of not being taken seriously and having my concerns and feelings matter less than those of others,” Lenis said to the board. “For this reason I find that the slow response of the school board regarding the name change unacceptable.
“Those who oppose renaming J.E.B. Stuart High School have argued that the name J.E.B. Stuart causes no harm as there is no written record that the school board of 1958 [named] the school with the intention of offending people or resisting desegregation. I am here to tell you that it shouldn’t matter whether the school board meant to offend anyone or not with the name. It does offend.”
Lenis was one of several students, alumni and other community members to speak in favor of changing the school’s name. There were also video testimonies during the meeting’s public engagement period from community members opposing changing the school’s name.
“I, as well as every other kid at J.E.B. Stuart, take a government class during our sophomore year. The purpose of the class is to teach how the local, state and federal government represent the voice and the needs of the people,” said Nicholas Pisciotta, a student at Stuart who opposes changing the school’s name. “So far this board has ignored the people that it represents. You are actively showing how corruption, deception and political agendas ruin democracy. This community will show how democracy prevails. Listen to our voice, vote down the resolution and focus on the real needs of the school.”
The issue of whether or not to change the name of the school has become a contentious topic at Stuart and in the community surrounding the school. Some of the members of the school board called for more civility surrounding the issue, relating that they have heard that children have been bullied at the school for opposing the name change.
But one Stuart student, Julia Clark, said that she has faced fierce opposition for her support of changing the school’s name. “They say we’ve come far, but the name of my school is a testament to how far we still have to go,” Clark said.
“When some of my fellow students found out that I was active in the name change movement, [they] verbally attacked me in class, saying things like, and I quote, ‘Black people should just deal with racism. If I was black, I wouldn’t be upset. Just give up, and stop being such an angry black girl.’ My teacher did nothing. We are told that every student should feel safe and respected at school, but that is only a reality for some students.”