Report presented on R.E. Lee High School debate

Published: Sep. 10, 2018 at 10:28 PM EDT
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The debate continues over the name of Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton. On Monday night, after five months of public input, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities gave a presentation at Staunton's school board meeting.

"The issue that garnered the most interest and energy throughout our time with Staunton city schools was around the name of Robert. E. Lee High School," Jonathan Zur, the President and CEO of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities said during the meeting.

Zur and Charm Bullard, the director of programs at the VCIC, revealed five common arguments from both sides of the debate.

The center stated that those in favor of keeping the name bring up their pride in the history and tradition of the school, and believe that funding should be used on other priorities. Those in favor also argued that it's not a Staunton-related issue and there are other third parties involved and that a referendum should be pursued.

Zur and Bullard explained that those in favor of changing the name described the name as "offensive and not welcoming," and that the school was changed from Staunton High School to R.E. Lee in 1914 after advocacy by a confederate affiliated organization. Those in favor of changing the name also expressed concerns for people's reputations who are affiliated with the school being damaged, and the school's own reputation being damaged.

The VCIC highlighted three possible compromises: referring to the school as just "Lee High School," changing back to its original name "Staunton High School," or adopting the name of the African American school before Lee was integrated, "Booker T. Washington High School."

Zur and Bullard recommended increased empathy from both sides, transparency going forward and focusing on reducing achievement and opportunity gaps. They made a clear emphasis that they are acting without bias.

Later in the meeting, there was time for public comment. Many from the community spoke. Three different adults yielded their two minutes of time to students who had extra curricular and academic commitments and could not be at the meeting early enough to sign up to speak. Supporters of keeping the name described it as "not fair."

Lee High Junior Kjiam Brown, who is a member of the school's football team, was one of three students who spoke during the meeting.

"This prejiduce monster has no right to have a school named after him. Nor should we no longer take pride in his name," Brown said. "Thus making it right to change the name."

All three students voiced their support for changing the name. Several members of the community and alumni spoke strongly in favor of keeping it.

"The Lee sports teams are raising money again this Fall as they've always done," Staunton resident Fritz Fairfield said. "There's not enough school funds to meet their needs. The money is clearly needed elsewhere. Not for a name change."