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Northam urges education leaders to remove Confederate names from schools

Northam urges education leaders to remove Confederate names from schools

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Gov. Ralph Northam answers a question during a press briefing inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond on June 9, 2020.

Gov. Ralph Northam wants school systems across Virginia to change the names of schools honoring Confederate leaders.

In a July 6 letter to the heads of school boards in the state, Northam says the names and mascots have a "traumatizing impact on students, families, teachers and staff of all backgrounds."

"When our public schools are named after individuals who advanced slavery and systemic racism, and we allow those names to remain on school property, we tacitly endorse their values as our own," Northam wrote. "This is no longer acceptable."

The names have come under increased scrutiny during ongoing civil unrest spurred by the May killing of Minnesota man George Floyd. Protesters have highlighted racial disparities in education, including the disproportionate rates at which students of color graduate and face discipline in school, with the names, opponents say, being symbols of a racially unjust system school leaders are tasked with fixing.

"Now is the time to change them to reflect the inclusive, diverse, and welcoming school community every child deserves, and that we, as leaders of the Commonwealth, have a civic duty to foster," Northam said.

Community members across the state have called for Confederate school names to be changed as part of the racial reckoning. Virginia's 14 Confederate school names are the second-most in the U.S., according to 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to Education Week, at least 194 schools in 18 states were named for men with Confederate ties as of last month.

Some school boards in Virginia already have said they will change the names, which they have the power to do.

The Fairfax County School Board voted last month to rename Robert E. Lee High School, with the body deciding on a new name July 23 in preparation for the upcoming school year. Among the possible new names: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former president Barack Obama, and Latino civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, among others.

“Confederate values are ones that do not align with our community,” School Board Vice Chairwoman Tamara Derenak Kaufax said during a meeting last month. “I have seen the pain and the hurt that these names have inflicted on friends and colleagues and community members.”

The Prince William County School Board renamed a high school and middle school honoring Stonewall Jackson last month for people in the community. In Loudoun County, school leaders opted to remove the "Raiders" mascot from Loudoun County High School because it represented a Confederate colonel's troops.

Locally, the Richmond School Board is considering renaming Binford Middle, John B. Cary Elementary and Ginter Park Elementary, all schools with Confederate ties. The body renamed J.E.B. Stuart Elementary for Obama in 2018 and earlier this year axed Founding Father George Mason's name from a rebuilt school over his slave ownership.

The Stuart-to-Obama renaming cost the school system an estimated $26,000, which private donors and a T-shirt sale helped pay for. In his letter, Northam said money shouldn't be an issue for renaming.

"The financial costs of changing school names are minimal compared to the generations that suffered through American slavery, the Confederacy, the Jim-Crow era, massive resistance, and contemporary manifestation of systemic racism, like the school to prison pipeline," Northam wrote.

The most contentious renaming process in the state has been in Hanover County, who the county's NAACP chapter is suing over the names of Lee-Davis High School (Confederates) and Stonewall Jackson Middle School (Rebels).

The body voted 5-2 in 2018 to keep the names. A vote appeared imminent June 23, with the board’s clerk announcing after a roughly two-hour closed session that the board planned on amending the agenda and “take action” on the names. Instead, the body voted to adjourn the meeting with no vote.

School Board Chairman John Axselle said Tuesday that the board can't comment because of the lawsuit. The NAACP is appealing a federal judge's dismissal of the suit earlier this year.

"As always, the School Board respects, values, and cares about every student and will continue to focus on providing them with the best educational opportunities possible," Axselle said in a statement.

The board is set to meet again July 14. An agenda for that meeting has yet to be published.

(This is a developing story. It will be updated.)

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306​

- Staff writer C. Suarez Rojas contributed reporting to this article.

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