Some Staunton community members asking to change Robert E. Lee High School's name

(WHSV)
Published: Sep. 11, 2017 at 10:21 PM EDT
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UPDATE (8:30 p.m. Sept. 11):

A Valley high school's name was brought into question at Staunton's school board meeting Monday night by members of the community.

Robert E. Lee High School is Staunton's only public high school, and some in the community are concerned the name does not reflect the views of the city.

People lined the walls of city council chambers for Monday night's school board meeting, where one-by-one, people took the podium during public comment to express their opinions about changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School to Staunton High School.

Some stated a school named after a confederate soldier does not promote unity for students, while others felt the debate about a name would only further divide the community.

"Like so many school districts around the country, we must see that the time of celebrating Confederate soldiers is past," said Emily Sproul.

"If there's hate in your heart, changing the name is not going to help. If there's hate in your heart, removing a statue is not going to help. Where will it end?" said Elizabeth Barnhardt.

This talk was sparked by

and the removal of Confederate statues from public places all across the country, including

in Roanoke and

in Fairfax

The board also heard a presentation from alumni, parents and community members who wanted the school to go back to its original name as Staunton High School. The city's first school, historically, was named Staunton High School. Robert E. Lee High School was first established as a segregated school for whites only when built in 1926, but retained the name when the school was integrated decades later.

The group says if the school board takes no action, they will continue to fight for a name change at each Staunton school board meeting until they do.

An analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 21 schools in Virginia are named after well-known Confederate generals. Most were built either between 1950 and 1970, around the time Brown v. Board of Education mandated school integration, or in the early 1900's when Jim Crow laws were prevalent throughout the South.

This isn't the first time debate has arisen over the name of Staunton's only high school. In 2015, the same group which started the current effort, "Resident for Staunton High School," launched a petition for a name change, but was told to wait until the city decided whether to renovate the current school or build a new one.

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ORIGINAL STORY (5 p.m. Sept. 11):

When the Staunton City School Board meets at 6 p.m. on Monday, September 11, a group with a very specific mission will be in attendance.

That group is "Residents for Staunton High School," and their goal is to have Staunton's Robert E. Lee High School be renamed as Staunton High School.

The group, which attempted a similar effort in 2015 using a

, was told by the school board to wait until after the city decided whether to build a new high school or renovate the current one.

Now that the decision has been made to renovate, the group is taking on the issue again. They'll make a presentation to the board during a special work session following the regular meeting.

That decision on building a high school is one

and

have faced recently as well. But in each of those local cities, the high school is already named for the city.

In Staunton, it's named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Following the violence at a "Unite the Right" rally that

, held due to the city's decision to move a statue of Robert E. Lee, communities nationwide have begun conversations about renaming schools and removing statues of Confederate icons.

That includes

in Roanoke and

in Fairfax.

Walter Brown, with the Booker T. Washington Alumni Association,

that while Lee's acts after the Civil War were laudable,"he represented the enslavement of people of color."

When WHSV

, a member of "Residents for Staunton High School," in 2015, she said, "For me, it's for my children. For other people, it's for the legacy. For some people, it's when they go to football games they want to cheer Staunton. The community that we live in and all of those reasons are legitimate."

Members of the group say items like uniforms and badges, which many point to as expenses for a name-change, would have to be replaced eventually regardless, and might as well have a new name.

On the other side of the debate, Betty Jordan graduated from Robert E. Lee high school in 1967 and told WHSV the majority of the community wants to keep the current name because it is a piece of history that cannot just be erased.

"Whether or not a new school is built, the history of it just needs to remain. It is something that is generational," said Jordan.

"Residents for Staunton High School" has recently conducted research into the history of the name of the school, especially focusing on the original name change from Staunton High School to Robert E. Lee High School in the past century. That is planned to be a focal point of the presentation on Monday.

"Our city’s very first high school was named Staunton High School," the group's mission states in their

. "When the current school was founded in 1926, 'Robert E. Lee High School' was a segregated, whites-only institution. Today all our children attend high school together, and it is a wonderfully diverse student body that spans the racial, ethnic, and cultural spectrum. Our schools – and the Staunton community as a whole – are strengthened by this diversity. Let’s ensure all students feel welcome at our high school. Let’s promote pride in the Staunton community by giving it an embracing and appropriate name: Staunton High School."

An analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 21 schools in Virginia are named after well-known Confederate generals. Most were built either between 1950 and 1970, around the time Brown v. Board of Education mandated school integration, or in the early 1900's when Jim Crow laws were prevalent throughout the South.