Robert E. Lee may soon follow in his Confederate compatriot J.E.B. Stuart’s footsteps in being replaced as the moniker for a Fairfax County high school.
The Fairfax County School Board moved to initiate the process for changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield during a meeting on Feb. 6, setting the stage for a potentially contentious debate over the Confederate Army commander’s legacy and whether it hampers his namesake school’s ability to create a welcoming environment for all students.
Lee District representative Tamara Derenak Kaufax, whose district includes Lee High School; and at-large member Karen Keys-Gamarra introduced a forum topic asking to start the process for changing the school’s name at the board’s regular meeting.
The school board unanimously approved the request, according to NBC4 Washington.
“Confederate values are ones that do not align with our community,” Derenak Kaufax said in a Feb. 10 newsletter that adapted comments she made at the board meeting. “I have seen the pain and hurt that these names have inflicted on friends, colleagues and community members. Our schools need to be places where all students, staff and members of the community feel safe and supported.”
The push to rename Lee High School comes more than two years after the Fairfax County School Board voted to drop Confederate general James Ewell Brown Stuart as the name of a high school in Falls Church.
The school board officially voted to rename J.E.B. Stuart High School on July 27, 2017 and approved Justice High School as its new name on Oct. 26, 2017, granting a hard-fought victory to students who had launched the campaign to change their school’s name back in 2015.
Led by former Mason District school board member Sandy Evans, the battle to change Stuart’s name embroiled the Falls Church community in a nationwide debate over how to handle statues, schools, and other public objects and institutions with ties to the Confederacy and slavery.
Though Justice now seems to have settled in as the school’s new name, the process to get there was drawn-out and sometimes bitter, as opponents to the change argued that dropping Stuart’s moniker amounted to erasing history, raised concerns about the cost of changing the name, and took issue with the school board’s renaming procedures.
In an effort to avoid a similarly fraught process in the future, the school board revised its policy for renaming existing school facilities this past October to reflect its commitment to racial and social equity as laid out in the One Fairfax resolution that it adopted on Nov. 20, 2017.
The new policy states that the school board can consider a change in the name of an existing school or facility “to ensure an inclusive, respectful learning environment” as outlined by One Fairfax “or when the Board deems it appropriate.”
The board previously changed the naming policy in December 2015 to say a name change can be considered if a compelling need exists, paving the way for Stuart High School to be renamed, but the lack of definition for what constitutes a compelling need became a major point of contention during the ensuing discussion over the name change.
In addition to clarifying the criteria for a name change, the new policy and a new accompanying regulation establish more specific procedural guidelines for renaming a school or facility.
Under the new policy, a school renaming request must be initiated through a board forum topic submitted by at least one at-large school board member and one magisterial board member who represents students attending the facility in question.
If the board votes to move forward with it, the name change proposal is added as a new business item at a regular school board meeting that will be followed by a one-month public comment period with a community meeting and public hearing, culminating in a school board vote on whether to rename the facility.
If the school board votes in favor of a renaming, the region assistant superintendent and the school board members who represent the area where the school is located will initiate a second one-month public comment period, including a community meeting and a public hearing, on what the new name should be.
The Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent would then present recommendations for the new name to the school board based on the community input that staff received, and the board would vote on the new name.
Derenak Kaufax first raised the possibility of renaming Lee High School with the full school board on Feb. 7, 2019, but the process of revising FCPS’s renaming policy delayed a decision on that specific school until a new board took office last month.
“This process did take some time, more time than most would like, but it’s through this revised process that we can bring forward positive change,” Derenak Kaufax said in her newsletter.
Unlike with the Stuart renaming, which was spurred by students and found support from famous alumni like actress Julianne Moore, there “has not been a groundswell of advocacy” from the Lee High School community urging the board to rename Lee High School, Derenak Kaufax admits.
However, the Lee District school board representative believes that “the time has come for this [school] board to do what is right.”
The move has support from at least one current Lee High School student who is quoted in a Feb. 6 NBC4 report as saying that she finds it “outdated” and “egregious” to have the name and a portrait of a Confederate general greeting students when they walk into school every day.
Based on enrollment data from the 2018-2019 school year, Lee is largely occupied by students of color with Hispanic or Latino students making up 43 percent of the population, Asian students 25 percent, and non-Hispanic black students 12.7 percent. The student body is 16.3 percent white.
The proposal for renaming Lee High School is scheduled to be introduced as new business at the school board’s meeting on Feb. 20, according to FCPS Region 3 assistant superintendent Nardos E. King in a letter to the community.
“The history of Virginia will always include General Robert E. Lee. That history will be in our text books and in our museums,” Derenak Kaufax said, preemptively acknowledging possible criticism of removing Lee’s name as an effort to erase history. “I know that many community members have strong feelings that exist on both sides of this issue, but please understand my hope is that the public and community can debate this topic with civility and respect.”