By a roughly two-to-one margin, students, parents and community members in the City of Falls Church gave a resounding “No” about whether they favored changing the names of George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary.
The results of the Falls Church School Board-commissioned survey were presented at the board’s work session Tuesday night and covered the lopsided answer that was gathered during a two-week period in October.
But passionate, emotionally-laden comments by two members of the board, one its only Black and gay member and the other its only student member, left the body in an extended, brooding silence.
Veteran board member Lawrence Webb, expressing disappointment in the Falls Church community as a result of the survey’s outcome, was followed by high school senior Elizabeth Snyder, who added an emotional appeal to the fact that, as she said, “the decision should not be determined by those who’ve never had to experience racism.”
Concerning the survey, the K-12 Insights group that ran the survey reported that only 26 percent favored a change in the name of Mason High, compared to 56 percent against, and only 23 percent favored a change in the name of Jefferson Elementary compared to 56 percent against.
Respondents included 1,005 students from the two schools in question, 943 members of the community, 1,332 parents and 208 members of the school staff.
The School Board is slated to hold another hearing and then vote on the proposal at its first meeting in December.
But the survey results reported Tuesday night were apparently more than offset by the impassioned comments from Webb and Snyder.
“I am surprised and disappointed by the results of the survey,” Webb said after the report on the results. “It does not follow that keeping the current names, both of slaveowners, should be OK because slavery was an accepted practice at the time. It is never good that one person owns someone else.”
He also criticized the argument that changing the names would be costly. The estimated cost of $100,000 to do that, he said, is not a great burden on one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in America, and a lot of the cost is already built into the overall construction cost of the new high school, which will be set for occupancy before the end of this year.
“There are a lot of homes in Falls Church with ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs on their lawns, but do they support that really?,” Webb asked. He amplified his meaning in comments to the News-Press Wednesday.
Snyder expanded her comments Tuesday night following a brief recess by the board, saying the decision “should not be based on what I think as a privileged white person,” but “no student should feel uncomfortable walking into a school with a name of someone who was a slaveholder.” She added, “No one should walk in feeling inferior, making it more difficult for someone to learn.”
Webb and Snyder were thanked by School Board chair Greg Anderson for speaking up, and Superintendent Noonan later added, “I have great admiration for students who step up and say what they believe. It is heartening to me. I am proud of such students.”
The survey conducted by K-12 showed similar results for all the participating groups concerning the reasons given for changing the names, those being that Mason and Jefferson owned slaves, that keeping the names reflects poorly on Falls Church community values, and keeping the names does not demonstrate an ability to respond to current social currents.
In defense of keeping the current names, respondents cited the importance of honoring the nation’s Founding Fathers, saying it would better enable educational efforts at “learning from past mistakes,” saying the practice of slavery was “the norm at that time,” and that it is a “waste of resources” to rename everything from stationery to football uniforms at the two schools in question.
It was noted that of the community respondents, 47 percent were graduates of one or more of the schools involved, which could have resulted in some overlap. It was also noted that there were 119 cases of attempted stuffings of ballot boxes that the survey organizers were able to detect and delete.
The School Board will put off making a final decision on whether or not to make name changes at one or both of the schools in question to its Dec. 8 meeting. If it votes to change one or both names at that time, they will then proceed with a process to determine what the new name or names will be.
The goal is to conclude the process in time for the necessary changes in the signage at the new high school, which is due for occupancy in early January.