(Updated at 10:45 p.m.) Arlington School Board chair Barbara Kanninen announced Thursday (August 17) it will revisit all school names in the county with a view to possibly changing some, including Washington-Lee High School.
Kanninen’s announcement came after the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, and a new petition for Arlington Public Schools to change the name of Washington-Lee High School, named in part for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The petition already has more than 200 signatures.
Though there has been talk of removing Lee’s name previously, the current backlash against Confederate symbolism has put the idea on center stage. Speakers at Thursday’s meeting and a letter to the editor published earlier in the day called for changing the school’s name, which has been its moniker since it opened in 1925.
The Board is going to be naming new schools at the Wilson, Stratford, Education Center and Career Center sites, and with that in mind, Kanninen said the time is right to look again at who schools are named after.
“Given all this, it is simply clear to us as a Board that now is the time,” Kanninen said. “It’s time to talk about the names of our schools, and what they mean and why they matter. It is time to talk about the values these names reflect and the messages we are sending our children.”
Kanninen said there will be extensive community input when discussing school names, and the process will include a “wide range of voices.” She said the Board will look to establish a naming criteria for schools that “reflects our values,” which will ensure debate is “focused on facts, not opinions.”
“We are committed to this community conversation, but it will take time and resources to get it right,” Kanninen said. “As the governing body of our school system, we have to be careful and deliberate.”
During the Board’s public comment period at the same meeting, numerous speakers showed support for changing the name of Washington-Lee, given Lee’s history with the Confederacy. Of the dozen speakers to testify, the majority expressed support for a name change.
“Today, Lee remains a potent symbol of hate, as witnessed by the events in Charlottesville,” local resident Ryan Sims said. “[It] is time for Arlington Public Schools to acknowledge its history, change the name and move on.”
“We must build on the momentum of the current crisis and use this as a teaching moment in Arlington Public Schools,” said Marc Beallor of the group Indivisible Arlington.
Not everyone who testified spoke in favor of changing the high school’s name, however. Mila Albertson, president of the Washington-Lee Alumni Association, said changing the name could set a precedent that could lead to changing numerous names and flags throughout Virginia. She said that precedent could include changing the name of the capital city of Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States of America, or renaming Virginia.
Instead, Albertson said, the school has gained a reputation for producing tens of thousands of graduates who have led productive lives.
“The name Washington-Lee is exalted because of its graduates, not because of the two [people] it is named for,” Albertson said.
Local resident and “unofficial W-L historian” John Peck urged caution and urged residents to learn more about Lee’s history, especially after the Civil War.
In a rarity for School Board meetings, two members spoke after the public comment period — urging patience for those who wish to change the name quickly. James Lander, the Board’s only black member, said it is important that community members continue to focus on students who face discrimination every day.
“I just don’t want us to take our eye off the ball and the children who are looking to us for examples,” Lander said.
Board colleague Reid Goldstein promised a robust process involving a wide range of opinions and community members, and no “knee-jerk” decisions.
“It’s very, very important that we do this right, or we’re going to keep doing this over and over again,” Goldstein said.