HANOVER -- When the Hanover County School Board voted not to change the names of two schools named for Confederate leaders last year, local NAACP leaders expressed their intention to continue their effort to rename the schools.
Last week, the local chapter officially notified both the Hanover County School Board and Hanover County Board of Supervisors of pending litigation if action was not taken regarding the name changes.
Officials made that complaint public and formal at a news conference earlier today where they announced a suit against Hanover County and the school board.
“Today, the Hanover County Unit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is suing the County and the School Board to change the names, change the school team names and take other steps to address a climate that denies African American students an equal education,” a press release from the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs said.
Following notification by the Washington, D.C.-based legal firm last week, the school board voted earlier this week to engage in mediation regarding an issue that has been the topic of conversation since the schools were named in 1959.
Following a public comment period that included a citizens’ survey regarding the name change, the board voted 5-2 last year not to rename the schools or remove the mascots. An overwhelming majority of citizens surveyed expressed a desire to maintain the names and mascots.
Lee-Davis High School’s student body is known as the “Confederates”, while Stonewall Jackson Middle School students compete under the “Rebels” banner.
Since the school board decision, various civil rights activists have addressed the panel during public comment period with complaints regarding the names.
“Every student has a right to an education free from discrimination. Students in these two schools must daily attend a school that honors generals who fought a war to keep African Americans in bondage and their dishonorable cause,” Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers Committee said in the statement.
The lawsuit cites violations related to the First Amendment prohibition of “compelled speech, and the Equal Education Opportunity Act that prohibits discrimination in public schools. It also cites violations of the Equal Protection Clause.
The suit alleges “Forcing public school children to use Confederate names as a condition of participation forces them to engage in speech they disavow, in violation of their First Amendment right to be free of compelled speech. Forcing African American students to attend a school rife with Confederate imagery and veneration creates a school environment that denies students of color an equal opportunity to an education and violates their right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
One speaker at one of those public comment periods (Citizens Time) told board members she couldn’t wear her school ring due to the Confederate flag featured on the jewelry, and another told of athletes covering the mascot’s name from their jerseys because of the negative connotation the term Confederates carries in the African American community.
“The School Board’s decision to sustain the names and imagery creates a school environment that denies students of color in Hanover County an equal opportunity to an education,” Smith continued.
“Students and alumni of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School, along with their families and community, have been urging the Hanover County School Board to change the names for decades,” the press release continues.
“They renewed their request in the wake of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville two years ago. At every turn, the School Board has refused to change these symbols of racial injustice.”
Robert Barnette, president of the local NAACP, said “The school board’s decision to maintain school names when knowing that they cause harm signals that African American students and families are not valued as members of our school communities.”
Barnette said continued efforts during the past two years have produced no indication that the school board would favor a name change or the omission of the offensive imagery.
“We have been in constant consultation with the school board and the board of supervisors with regards to the name change,” Barnette said in a Friday afternoon press conference.
“Specifically, over the past two years we have been speaking at Citizens Time and doing community events, community and organization meetings in the county … and time and again this issue comes up, asking why do African American students have to go to school with the name Lee-Davis and Stonewall Jackson,” he added.
“We’ve made many pleas with the superintendent [Michael Gill] and the school board,” he continued. “We’ve exhausted all other opportunities to get them to change the names.”
The school board is responsible for establishing a school name policy, naming schools or making changes to that policy.
Deputy Legal Director and lead attorney on this case Kaitlin Banner of WLC said the struggle to remove the names of those schools is not new.
“Students and families have been fighting to change the names in Hanover County for decades,” Banner said. “The school board had refused them at every turn.”
She said the message is clear to African American families in the community.
“From what we’ve heard from talking from members of the community, African American students and families feel unwelcome and excluded from the school community due to the names,” Banner said.
“We are calling today on Hanover County schools to do the right thing,” Banner said. “In Hanover County and across the nation, the naming of the schools was never about honoring Confederate generals but rather about signaling resistance to equal rights for African Americans”
She said the imagery (mascot names), coupled with the school names, inhibits African American students from receiving an equal opportunity to education.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Covington & Burling LLP represent the Hanover County Unit of the NAACP and its members in this case that was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division.
School board chair Roger Bourassa refused to comment on the action, citing board policy that prohibits comments on pending litigation.
When contacted for comment, Hanover County public information officer Tom Harris replied similarly. “We do not comment on pending litigation.”
Barnette said he has received positive feedback regarding the suit and efforts to change the school names, and outlined the ultimate goal of the action.
“Our aim is to create an inclusive school environment that will welcome all children in Hanover County to access equal education opportunities.”