Prince William County School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef said Friday he agrees with Superintendent Steven Walts’ call to rename Stonewall Jackson High School and Stonewall Middle and believes the school board will take action to do so before the new school year begins in August.
“I think it very well will [happen before next school year] and I think that it should,” Lateef said in an interview Friday afternoon.
Lateef said the full board supports changing the schools' names. He said he and his fellow board members have privately discussed the Stonewall schools' names for weeks in exchanges that first began after news of Ahmaud Arbery’s death.
Arbery, 25, was shot and killed in February after two white men chased him down while he was jogging in a Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood. His death is one of three high-profile killings of black Americans that have sparked protests across the nation in recent days.
Arbery’s death was followed in March by that of Breonna Taylor, 26, an EMT who was shot and killed by police when they burst into her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment to serve a warrant in connection with a drug investigation. The May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis only intensified the school board’s discussions, Lateef said.
“We have been talking about it with the superintendent and his staff. … Having a building named for someone who offends so many people goes to the heart of who we are and what we’re putting out there to others,” Lateef added. “We decided that the school board needs to take this up soon.”
Lateef further said renaming the schools is not a new idea. He said during the 2019 campaign, he and other school board candidates were frequently asked by people in the community about why the school division hadn’t already changed the names of the two schools, which are located in the Manassas area of Prince William County.
“I’ve always thought they needed to be changed," Lateef said of the schools' names.
Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson earned his nickname during the First Battle of Manassas in 1861. Back in 1962, the then-Prince William County School board voted unanimously to name their new high school for Jackson at about the same time the community celebrated the 100th anniversary of the First and Second Battles of Manassas, county historian Don Wilson said in 2017, during the most recent debate about the Stonewall schools' names.
The original Stonewall Jackson High School later became Stonewall Middle School after a new high school was built in 1972. The late state Sen. Chuck Colgan, who died in 2017, was a big proponent of allowing both schools to retain Jackson's name, according to school board minutes at the time.
Former school board chairman Ryan Sawyers suggested renaming Stonewall Jackson High School following the Unite the Right rally in 2017. But Sawyers suggestion was not taken up by the full board and was even criticized by some school board members as divisive.
The recent police killings and the subsequent protests -- as well as Gov. Ralph Northam's decision to remove the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue from Richmond's iconic Monument Avenue -- seems to have changed things.
Lateef said Friday the entire school board worked together in recent days to put out a formal statement, which was issued Friday morning ahead of Walts’ announcement, saying the school board is committed to “promoting change to combat racism and inequity within our schools.”
The statement followed the firing earlier this week of two school division staffers in connection to racist comments made on social media. A teacher’s aide at Covington-Harper Elementary School was placed on administrative leave after allegedly making a Facebook post in which she used the “n” word. A few days later, a Battlefield High School baseball coach was fired after writing “I’d put a knee on his neck too,” in the comments section of an article posted by Bleacher Report.
After issuing the board's statement Friday, Lateef said, it’s clear “that name can no longer stand on our building.”
“What I’ve seen over the last few weeks has accelerated my desire to make these changes happen faster,” he added. “The national dialog around race, and the protests around the country, are asking for fairness and equity and inclusiveness.”
Challenging times for the school division
Walts’ call to rename the school comes amid a tumultuous time for the school division. In addition to trying to plan for returning to school amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the school board recently had to trim more than $40 million from its budget for next school year and is in the middle of an investigation into Walts’ interactions with students on Twitter.
Also, the school board is scheduled to vote this Wednesday, June 10, on a name for the 13th high school, which is under construction behind Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow.
Lateef said the school board will likely vote on a name for the school during the upcoming meeting.
During the last school board meeting, the board heard the top 10 suggested names for the new school, which included: Ashley Guindon, Gainesville, Capt. Brian S. Letendre, Lillian Orlich, Paul Ebert, Helen Keller, The Piedmont, Cardinal, Joyce Russell Terrell and Old Dominion.
A school board naming committee made up of Lateef, and School Board members Jen Wall (Gainesville) and Adele Jackson (Brentsville) will share their top pick for the new high school’s name during the meeting , and the entire school board will vote.
Without disclosing what the committee’s suggestion will be, Lateef said he favors a geographical or place name for both the 13th high school and for new names for both Stonewall Jackson High School and Stonewall Middle School.
Coming amid the pandemic, the process for naming the 13th high school has been relatively quiet. Only one speaker participated in a virtual public hearing on the school’s name last month to suggest that the new high school be named for Helen Keller.
Regarding the process for re-naming the Stonewall schools, Lateef said the board has not yet decided exactly when or how that process will start.
He said the school division will announce its plans to the public as soon as they are finalized, and the school board will welcome input from the public.
After the controversial 2016 renaming of Mills Godwin Middle School to George Hampton Middle School, the school board established a formal process for renaming schools. It closely follows the process for naming new schools, except that the renaming must be initiated by a vote of the full school board.
Once the board votes to initiate the renaming process, a school board naming committee will begin the work. According to policy, the naming committee must be comprised of three school board members: the chairman, the member representing the magisterial district where the school is located, and a school board member representing a district that includes students within the school’s boundary.
In the case of Stonewall Jackson High School and Stonewall Middle, the committee would include Lateef as well as Brentsville District Representative Adele Jackson. Overlapping districts include either the Gainesville District, which is represented by Jen Wall, or the Coles District, which is represented by Lisa Zargarpur.
Attempts to reach Jackson, Wall and Zargarpur for comment were not immediately successful Friday.
Lateef said the school board would provide the public with plenty of notice regarding the renaming process and time to offer their input.
“Input from the public is always considered,” Lateef said.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org
Original story: Prince William County Schools Superintendent Steve Walts is calling on the local school board to rename Stonewall Jackson High School and Stonewall Middle School in an effort to remove symbols of racism from county schools.
Walts said in a letter to staff, parents and students on Friday that the proposed changes are in response to recent events, “locally and nationally” that “have shown that the voices of many in our community are not being heard.”
“We can no longer represent the Confederacy in our schools,” Walts said. “It is an insult and an affront to our students, especially in schools where the majority of the students are students of color.”
Earlier this week, two Prince William County school employees created controversy after making racist comments on social media. A teacher’s aide at Covington-Harper Elementary School was placed on administrative leave after allegedly making a Facebook post in which she used the “n” word. A few days later, a Battlefield High School baseball coach was fired after writing “I’d put a knee on his neck too,” in the comments section of an article posted by Bleacher Report.
In addition to requesting that the two schools be renamed, Walts is also asking the school board to prohibit the wearing or flying of the Confederate flag on school grounds. Walts said that such behavior is “often meant to intimidate students of color, and as such, it is a disruption to the educational environment.”
In the letter, Walts also requested that the board create a community panel to review the school division’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Prince William County Police. The MOU provides the school system with school resource officers trained by the police department.
Walts is asking the school board to make recommendations regarding the MOU if changes are needed.
“Our law enforcement partners are critical to the safety of all our students and employees and we thank them for their service. We recognize, however, that the relationship between police and all the members of our school community is not always perceived positively,” Walts said.
Walts added that the Prince William County school division is majority-minority and that more must be done to pursue diversity and equity for all students.
“We must be vigilant in promoting antiracism. In so doing, we must ensure that employees who work in our schools are aligned with these practices. If they are not, they must be removed from our classrooms,” Walts said.