Debate continues across the county over whether to eliminate school names and mascots tied to the Confederacy.
Controversy over the appearance of the Confederate flag on government buildings and in public spaces reached a peak after the mass shooting that left nine people dead at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in June. The suspect, who posed in photos with the Confederate flag, allegedly had a goal to initiate a race war.
In the weeks since the shootings, a wave of banishments of the Confederate flag and other related symbols has swept the country. After an emotional legislative battle, lawmakers in South Carolina voted to remove it from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also ordered it removed from his state’s capitol grounds.
#TakeItDown trended on Twitter and sparked a conversation surrounding all Confederate propaganda, shifting the conversation to schools with names, mascots and propaganda attached to the Confederacy. Some districts are also banning their use of “Dixie” fight songs.
Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, Texas, is in the midst of the current controversy. The school is named after the general who led the Confederate troops in the Civil War and it has a mosaic tile inlay of the flag on display in its courtyard. Their mascot is the Volunteers.
Senior Kayla Wilson started a petition to have the name changed and all use of the Confederate symbol removed from school grounds. As of August 7, the petition has 9,838 signatures, closing in on its 10,000 signature goal.
“We often forget that the Confederacy was doing an act of treason, an act of betrayal,” Wilson wrote in her petition. “Although we can not erase our past, we must not celebrate parts of our past that were most treacherous, and continuing to let the Robert E. Lee name live on is doing just that. This school is far overdue for a name change.”
An opposing petition to keep the school’s name was created after Wilson’s. This petition has 6,140 signatures as of August 5.
Benjamin White, who created the petition to keep the school’s name, argues that “Robert E. Lee was more than a man that supported the South, he was a great leader and smart man. I feel that changing the name of our school would be alienating to southern Americans and would take away from the pride that past years’ alumni have for the school.”
“In San Antonio, North East [Independent School District] should call together a group of board members, students and community members to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School as well,” former San Antonio Mayor (and current HUD secretary) Julián Castro wrote in a Facebook post. “There are other, more appropriate individuals to honor and spotlight as role models for our young people.”
Several district employees also gave their opinions on social media causing an uproar. Now the district has forbidden employees to publicly comment on the issue.
“The District understands that employees have First Amendment rights, but such rights must be balanced against the District’s compelling interest in making sure there are no disruptions to its schools, and the law allows for limitation of District employees’ speech when it causes any such disruption,” Executive Director of Human Resources Joel Treviño wrote in a letter to district employees.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that if an entity can establish that there has been a disruption due to speech by a public employee, then the government employer can regulate that speech,” said Aubrey Chancellor, a spokeswoman for the school district.
The district is not considering a name change at this time, according to Chancellor. In addition, due to prior construction, the tiled Confederate flag has recently been removed from the campus grounds and is in storage.
Wilson and her supporters plan to present the petition and speak at the next district board meeting on August 10.
Similar debates are affecting three schools in Fairfax County, Va. Also, a professor from Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, wrote an opinion piece for The Spectrum detailing why she thought it was time to change the name of the university. Many of these schools have similar opinions that are being discussed. People debate whether negative historical context constitutes a name change over tradition and pride.
Photo Credit: Robert E. Lee High School--Google Maps
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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.