At Stuart High School Renaming Meeting, Many Favor Change to Civil Rights Pioneer

September 13, 2017 11:42 PM0 comments

At the community first meeting after the Fairfax School Board voted to rename J.E.B.
Stuart High School, a majority of attendees favored a change to honor a teenage civil rights activist. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)

The first steps toward the renaming of J.E.B. Stuart High School were taken last Saturday as the community gathered for a three-hour meeting in the school’s auditorium. There, attendees advocated for specific names with a majority nominating a teenage civil rights pioneer as the potential replacement, while County officials reviewed the steps that would follow in the process set to take hold over the next two months.

Important dates to note going forward include next Saturday’s Stuart pyramid community vote to determine the top three name choices for the soon-to-be renamed high school and Fairfax County Public Schools’ Superintendent Scott Brabrand will deliver his recommendation to the school board on Sept. 28. On Oct. 16, the board will have a regular work session to determine which name possesses an optimal combination of the community’s input and the school system’s values and the board will then deliver their final selection for Stuart’s new name at the regular school board meeting on Oct. 26.

All in all, the meeting had a different tone from the contentious work sessions and board meetings leading up to the school board’s vote last month to approve the name change. Over 100 attendees were respectful to one another and showed a willingness to engage in every aspect of the forum. A bulk of the meeting centered around an allotted period that permitted brief advocacy for the school’s new name. Teenage civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns, a Prince Edward County, Virginia native, was trumpeted the most, as attendees felt it would serve as proper reconciliation for a school named after Confederate general.

“Barbara Rose Johns was clearly the first choice more than any other name. Not a single person objected to Johns,” attendee Ken Longmyer said. “‘Place names don’t teach anything. More than 30 schools in the county are named after people. Johns is a healing name.”

Johns’ rose to prominence in the early 1950s when she served as one of the four cases making up the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court case that disbanded the “separate but equal” argument for lawful segregation of public schools.

Other recurring names were neutral, geographic ones, such as Munson Hill or Peace Valley. Munson Hill was the originally planned name for Stuart High School before the school board decided to make a late switch to Stuart in 1958, while Peace Valley is the street the school is currently located on. Those who favored a location-specific name believed it would mend the divide more efficiently than choosing another name that gave credence to one group of people over another.

Parents of current, former or prospective students, some teachers and Stuart alumni as well as community members at-large made up a majority of those who advocated for new names. About a dozen current students were in the audience, with four electing to speak. The ACT test and other extra curricular activities prevented more students from attending, but it did raise the question as to why student involvement wasn’t a greater focal point during the meeting’s scheduling.

In court documents of an denied injunction into the school board’s process obtained by the News-Press, a school official’s testimony revealed that a majority of the 10,000 letters alerting Stuart pyramid residents to the meeting were sent home with students (9,635). Although some, such as Springfield district representative Elizabeth Schultz, were slightly bothered that Saturday’s gathering will be the only one of its kind. She said she generally favors multiple opportunities for community input on major issues.

It’s also worth mentioning that a key aspect of what helped pass the motion to change Stuart’s name was an addendum that included keeping the name “Stuart” in school’s new name in “the spirit of compromise.” Few of the community speakers at the meeting found that to be an appropriate solution to the renaming process, giving the impression that the alteration was more about politicking than actually governing.

Mason district representative Sandy Evans, who authored the motion, clarified that the addendum was a suggestion — not a mandate — that the board felt was important to offer to the community. The renaming itself didn’t require nor was contingent on keeping the Stuart name for it to be legitimately considered. Braddock district representative Megan McLaughlin agreed with her fellow board member.

“That part of the motion represented the board’s sensitivity to the fractured community mindset,” McLaughlin said, adding that it was an effort to pay respect to the name’s history in the community. “[But] the board will use our best judgment to determine which name will help heal the community moving forward.”

Next Saturday’s vote will not definitively decide the school’s new name. Instead, it will be a recommendation from the community to Brabrand, who will use their input to guide his recommendation to the school board. The board will then deliberate during their October work session and meeting on which name best fits a county school.

The vote will take place from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 16, at Stuart High School. Only those who currently reside in the Stuart pyramid will be permitted to vote; there are no age restrictions on who can vote but there can only be one vote per household. Proof of residence is required to vote. For information on how to provide proof of residence, visit fcps.edu/renaming.

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