The Falls Church City School Board voted to change the names of local schools George Mason High and Thomas Jefferson Elementary on Tuesday night.
The seven-member board was unanimous in its decision to rename and each member offered remarks during the virtual meeting to explain their reasoning or opinion.
“Are these two men appropriate namesakes today for schools in a division committed to anti-racism? After careful consideration of everything I’ve heard, I come to the conclusion that they are not,” said Greg Anderson, chair of the school board. “We should rename both schools. Doing so is in the best interest of students, and consistent with our commitment to foster equity and equality for our staff, our students, our families and our community.”
The decision comes in light of results from a survey – released to parents, staff, students and community members – where the majority answered no when asked if the two schools should be renamed.
Specifically, 56 percent of the overall respondents did not want to see the school names changed, including 61 percent of Thomas Jefferson Elementary parents and 57 percent of parents from George Mason High, according to the survey.
For both schools, over 70 percent of community members were against renaming. The most common answer of students from Thomas Jefferson indicated they had no opinion on the matter (39 percent), while 38 percent of George Mason students did not favor changing the names, according to the survey.
The survey is part of a two-stage process the board adopted back in June when they first started to consider the possibility of renaming.
During the public comment portion of the virtual meeting, the board heard from a mix of people speaking against and for renaming the two schools, both of which are currently conducting classes virtually.
Many school board members had similar, if not the same views, on the topic and why they thought it was necessary.
Almost all said they had taken time to come up with a decision and brought up the historically cemented contributions of Mason and Jefferson to the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Both Susan Dimock and vice-chair Shawna Russell mentioned how their roles as school board members prompted them to make decisions that are in the best interest of students and making sure the five schools within the division are welcoming places for all.
“If our mandatory public schools make some of our own students feel less worthy, because of the name over the door, that is a big problem,” Russell said. “No child should ever have to be in a building where they feel marginalized or uncomfortable because it’s named after a person who participated in slavery. It is our job as a school board to first and foremost serve the children in our community and that means all the children.”
The board’s only Black member, Lawrence Webb, said by reading certain public comments it became clear to him that some people do not comprehend the anguish or compassion of minorities in America. Webb’s argument ultimately aligned similarly with Russell’s.
“I am in support of changing the names of our elementary and high schools because if one student feels uncomfortable walking into a building named for a person that did not respect the dignity of another human, that’s one too many,” Webb said.
“Changing a name is only one step in this process,” Webb continued. “Falls Church City schools are committed to equality and that work will continue.”
The board member whose remarks differed most from others was Philip Reitinger. After discussing the results of the survey, the overall opinion of the community and his desire to change the names, Reitinger brought up the recent presidential election and that Falls Church City voted heavily in favor of President-elect Joe Biden.
Reitlinger then talked about the need to do more for diversity and inclusion by bringing up President Donald Trump’s comments on White supremacists in Charlottesville, the 2019 detentions of South American immigrants at the border with Mexico and said that Trump stokes division.
After the vote had taken place, Anderson said the next step in the process is to find new names for both schools. That will involve creating a committee to gather more public input, deliberate potential replacement names and then recommend a set of five names for each school to the board for a final decision.
More details will be discussed at the school board’s next meeting on December 15, Anderson said.
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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “George Mason High School” by Falls Church City Public Schools.