After nearly five hours of deliberation this Monday, the Fairfax County School Board’s decision to change the name of J.E.B Stuart High School, or not, inched forward as board members agreed to finally vote on the proposition at its July 27 meeting following a work session on the topic July 17.
This new schedule for the vote marked a delay from the original plan to vote next week, due in large part to objections from some board members about a lack of information and deliberation so far in the name change debate. One member laid it out bluntly, noting this week’s meeting was only the first truly substantive discussion on Stuart’s name change proposition the board had held, reflecting a consternation tangible during the entire session.
Prior to that comment, board members were trying to discern which facts took precedent from the cases both for and against the name presented by two members of the ad hoc committee created to address the issue.
Arguing in favor of the name change was Ken Longmyer, a parent of a Stuart student, and Denise Patton-Pace, a history teacher, argued against the change. The sticking point of Longmyer’s rationale and Patton-Pace’s counter was the county’s policy of requiring a “compelling need” for the school to undergo a name change, which caused the two to butt heads at every turn.
Longmyer underscored a “compelling need” by highlighting the abrasive nature of the school’s name to students, parents, faculty and alumni, and emphasized its iconography of crossed sabres and the school’s mascot, “Raiders,” are akin to nooses and Confederate battle flags that contribute to a hostile learning environment.
“Stuart, who took up arms against the U.S. in defense of the values of the Confederacy of slavery, white supremacy and racism, did not and does not deserve to be honored by any of us…the name Stuart does not inspire, it offends,” Longmyer stated, before suggesting that the school should be renamed to herald overshadowed figures of the country in women and people of color.
Patton-Pace’s stance disputing a “compelling need” revolved around a collection of surveys that were conducted ever since the debate to change the name sprouted up over two years ago. Surveys administered by Fairfax County and the Students for Change organization at Stuart showed a majority in favor of keeping the school’s name, according to Patton-Pace. Her later points called upon observers to think critically about who Stuart was as a person and the role he played in the Civil War, and she also assailed the tactics used by “changers” to advance their agenda.
“Fairfax [County] has a zero [tolerance] bullying rule, yet ‘changers’ have bullied the community and student body to push forward this name change. The students are intimidated in the classroom by ‘changer’ teachers and called ‘racists’ and ‘white supremacists’ by ‘changer’ students – how does this fit the portrait of a graduate?” Patton-Pace asked.
During the board’s question-and-answer portion of the meeting that followed, Longmyer clarified that this issue is less about who Stuart was personally and more about what he stood for, which was dissent and disregard for the U.S. He also reminded the board that this was not about erasing or destroying Stuart’s legacy, but rebranding the school to represent and accommodate its non-white student body majority.
Patton-Pace said those trying to change the name were falling victim to “presentism,” or using the moralities of today to judge the events of the past, and also suggested that the will reflected in the surveys should not be ignored.
When the board reconvened, they volleyed ideas back and forth attempting to hammer out a way to act on the information they were given. The central point of contention was whether or not changing the school name was a “moral imperative.”
Some believed it was, not exclusively for the arguments presented, but because the community of Stuart students and parents had been embroiled in this debate for too long and were owed closure from the board.
Others felt that describing the topic as a moral imperative was too strong, and wondered why this issue deserved that designation when other issues could be also be assigned that distinction. Another concern was giving the surveys too much credence. While they showed the majority of respondents wanted to keep the name, they were not professionally administered and represented two frictional, emotionally charged points of view. Determining whose sentiments mattered more was not an area most on the board seemed comfortable weighing in on.
A majority of the board also could not see how, if a decision to change Stuart’s name was made, they would handle other schools named after Confederate figures. They noted if one were to change, the rest must also be changed, as it would be a flaw to act on a case-by-case basis toward a policy.
By the meeting’s end Monday, only board chair Sandy Evans, vice chair Janie Strauss and Pat Hynes were openly in favor of changing the name. The remaining eight members (one absent) said they were undecided on the topic and will look to develop a clearer stance in the July 17 work session before the formal vote 10 days later.