Press Club

Excerpts From the W-L Alumni Lawsuit Over the High School’s Name Change

The Washington-Lee High School Alumni Association filed suit against the Arlington School Board last week, alleging that changing the school’s name to “Washington-Liberty” was done unlawfully and is causing harm to the association.

The 48-page suit, filed in Alexandria federal court, can be found here in PDF form. Arlington’s current interim superintendent, former superintendent and former deputy superintendent were also named as defendants, in their official capacities.

In the suit, the Alumni Association alleges that school administrators “deceived” the public by conducting a “sham process” that was predetermined to remove Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s “prestigious” name from the school.

This is a case where politicians and their associates actively deceived their constituents, including the Alumni Association and its members, in order to deprive them of their opportunity to comment on changes that would greatly harm their educational reputations. Specifically, these politicians conspired to impose their own political values on the community by changing the prestigious, century-old name of Washington-Lee High School to Washington-Liberty High School, without concern for the fact that the students and alumni would no longer have the prestige of the original name.

Defendants knew that the public would not support such changes, and sought to actively stymie public debate on this issue. To that end, Defendants repeatedly and falsely promised their constituents that there would be a lengthy comment period later in the year where members of the public could weigh in on whether the school’s name should be changed. Then, instead of providing the promised comment period, Defendants suddenly and without warning made the decision to change the school’s name.

Alumni were denied Constitutionally-protected due process by school officials, the suit says, detailing how dissenting voices were allegedly shut out of the name change discussion.

As a result of Defendants’ strong-arm tactics, three Committee members resigned in protest of the sham process. These resignations included two of the three non-Board-affiliated Washington-Lee alumni. As a result, the version of the Naming Committee that delivered the “recommendation” to the Board contained only one Washington-Lee alumnus other than the daughter of the former Board member who had campaigned for the name change.

Although Defendants had promised that this time period would be designed to facilitate public commentary, Defendants banned members of the public from making any comments at the Naming Committee’s meetings. Instead, public comment was limited to a suggestion box that only allowed very brief statements. Moreover, comments in that suggestion box were subject to screening by Defendants and their agents before the Naming Committee could see them. Ultimately, the Naming Committee rarely discussed any of the public suggestions, in contrast to Defendants’ earlier promises that this phase existed to obtain public feedback.

The suit claims that the Alumni Association is suffering financial and membership losses as a result of the name change.

These actions have greatly harmed the Alumni Association and its members by, among other things, causing confusion in the Alumni Association’s operations, causing the Alumni Association to suffer financial loss and a decline in membership, and causing the Alumni Association’s members to lose the prestige associated with the school’s original name.

The association might have to shut down if the name of the school is not changed back to Washington-Lee, the suit suggests.

Defendants’ actions have irreparably injured the Alumni Association by forcing it to either (1) retain its current name despite the difference from the School’s name, thereby dissociating itself from the School and causing confusion for alumni who will graduate after the name change, or (2) change its name to “Washington-Liberty High School Alumni Association,” thereby dissociating itself from both the School’s distinguished history and the Alumni Association’s own history and causing confusion for alumni who graduated before the name change.

Indeed, it is possible that the Alumni Association will be unable to continue operations unless the School’s name is restored.

The suit further claims that alumni are being denied “educational and employment opportunities” as a result of the name change.

Defendants’ actions have irreparably injured the Alumni Association’s members by causing them to lose the prestige they would have had from being associated with Washington-Lee High School, which in turn is depriving them of invaluable educational and employment opportunities.

A year and a half after its was first announced that the school’s name would change, the alumni group is seeking to have the court compel Arlington Public Schools to change the name back.

The public interest would be well served by a permanent injunction, as such an injunction would protect the School’s numerous alumni from losing the value of the School’s reputation and prevent public confusion caused by individuals and entities being unaware that “Washington-Liberty High School” is the same institution as “Washington-Lee High School.” An injunction would also serve the public interest by reversing an action that was accomplished in secret by actively deceiving the public in order to suppress public participation in government. Reversing this action would benefit the public by encouraging public officials to act honestly and transparently instead of attempting to defraud their constituents out of their civil right of public participation as Defendants have done here.

Thus far Arlington Public Schools has not issued any public statements on the lawsuit.

An earlier suit filed by three current students was struck down by an Arlington Circuit Court judge in December 2018.

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