RICHMOND (AP) — Gov. Ralph Northam wants school systems across Virginia to change the names of schools honoring Confederate leaders.
In a Monday letter to the heads of school boards in the state, Northam says the names have a “traumatizing impact on students, families, teachers and staff of all backgrounds.”
“When our public schools are named after individuals who advanced slavery and systemic racism, and we allow those names to remain on school property, we tacitly endorse their values as our own,” Northam wrote. “This is no longer acceptable.”
The names have come under increased scrutiny during ongoing civil unrest spurred by the May killing of Minnesota man George Floyd. Protesters have highlighted racial disparities in education, including the disproportionate rates at which students of color graduate and face discipline in school, with the names, opponents say, being symbols of a racially unjust system school leaders are tasked with fixing.
Last month, an online petition was started to change the name of Rockingham County’s Turner Ashby High School, which as of Tuesday garnered 2,779 signatures. A counter petition to keep the name was started around the same time, and had more than 5,200 signatures Tuesday.
“Once you have that conversation in the community, it’s also time for the School Board to have that conversation,” said Rockingham County Public Schools Superintendent Oskar Scheikl. “I don’t have any timeline for it. I don’t anticipate we will simply ignore that topic.”
Turner Ashby High School was named by the School Board on April 12, 1955, and the school opened the following year. Ashby was a Confederate cavalry commander who was killed near Harrisonburg during the 1862 Valley Campaign.
The fact that the school was named during the 1950s and in response to the resistance that came in Virginia following the Brown v. Board of Education decision to integrate schools adds a complicated layer to the issue, Scheikl said.
Scheikl said the topic will not be decided by a popular vote. The school board is not going to look at the signatures of two opposing change.org petitions and go with the one that has the most signatures.
“Now is the time to change them to reflect the inclusive, diverse, and welcoming school community every child deserves, and that we, as leaders of the Commonwealth, have a civic duty to foster,” Northam said.
Community members across the state have called for Confederate school names to be changed as part of the racial reckoning. Virginia’s 14 Confederate school names are the second-most in the U.S., according to 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to Education Week, at least 194 schools in 18 states were named for men with Confederate ties as of last month.
Some school boards in Virginia already have said they will change the names.
The Fairfax County School Board voted last month to rename Robert E. Lee High School, with the body deciding on a new name July 23 in preparation for the upcoming school year. Among the possible new names: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former president Barack Obama, and Latino civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, among others.
The Prince William County School Board renamed a high school and middle school honoring Stonewall Jackson last month for people in the community. In Loudoun County, school leaders opted to remove the “Raiders” mascot from Loudoun County High School because it represented a Confederate colonel’s troops.
The Richmond School Board is considering renaming Binford Middle, John B. Cary Elementary and Ginter Park Elementary, all schools with Confederate ties. The body renamed J.E.B. Stuart Elementary for Obama in 2018 and earlier this year axed Founding Father George Mason’s name from a rebuilt school over his slave ownership.
The Stuart-to-Obama renaming cost the school system an estimated $26,000, which private donors and a T-shirt sale helped pay for. In his letter, Northam said money shouldn’t be an issue for renaming.
The most contentious renaming process in the state has been in Hanover County, who the county’s NAACP chapter is suing over the names of Lee-Davis High School (Confederates) and Stonewall Jackson Middle School (Rebels).
The body voted 5-2 in 2018 to keep the names. A vote appeared imminent June 23, with the board’s clerk announcing after a roughly two-hour closed session that the board planned on amending the agenda and “take action” on the names. Instead, the body voted to adjourn the meeting with no vote.
The Daily News-Record contributed to this report.