School & District Management

Pressure Mounts Against Schools’ Confederate Ties

By Bryan Toporek — September 22, 2015 7 min read
Hurley High School football players Justin Stevens, left, and Josh Mullins, holding flag, lead teammates onto the field at the “Meet The Rebels” event, kicking off the season at the school in southwestern Virginia.

For generations, fans have hailed Jack C. Hays High School’s sports teams with the “Dixie” fight song and rallied around its “Rebel” mascot, even as other schools neighboring the Buda, Texas, community yielded to concerns that such branding was racially divisive.

But in the aftermath of a racially motivated church shooting in Charleston, S.C., this summer, in which nine African-Americans were killed, the Hays Consolidated Independent School District retired the Confederate anthem, citing its potential to divide or offend students and the community.

Hays, like a number of schools across the country, has been doing some soul searching, weighing its history and legacy against growing public sentiment that some monikers and icons are offensive to an increasingly diverse student body.

In recent weeks, schools in Ohio, Kansas, Massachusetts, Virginia, and elsewhere have taken steps to remove Confederate battle flags and related imagery from campuses.

Meanwhile, California lawmakers approved a bill this month that would ban public schools’ use of “Redskins” as a team name, mascot, or nickname beginning Jan. 1, 2017. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill into law, California would become the first state to enact such legislation.

The Houston school board earlier this month took steps to rename six schools in the district that currently have Confederate namesakes.

An entrance to Hurley High School in southwestern Virginia is adorned with the Confederate battle flag.

But the efforts have triggered strong emotions and opinions around the appropriateness of school names and symbols. Heated debate often follows, as it did at Hays, where a majority of speakers at a recent school board meeting spoke out against the change.

“The people who’ve been in the district for the past 50 years … are very sad about it,” said Tim Savoy, a spokesman for the district. “And it’s not because they’re racist or anything like that. It’s because to the community, it does represent school pride.”

In nearby San Antonio, Texas, a similar drive led by an African-American high school student has been met with harsh opposition.

Catalyst for Change

While campaigns to rid public spaces of the Confederate flag and to drop the use of certain mascots for sports teams—most prominently, the use of Native American mascots—have drawn debate and controversy for years, the Charleston shootings have catalyzed a much larger wave of change in both public and private sectors, including K-12.

The accused shooter in the Charleston church massacre created a website where he posted multiple photographs of himself posing with a Confederate battle flag. Following the shooting, a nationwide discussion emerged regarding the appropriateness of Confederate symbolism, leading some major companies, such as Walmart and Amazon, to stop selling the flag.

The South Carolina legislature, meanwhile, decided to remove the flag from the Capitol after weeks of public protest, and the Charleston County school district has begun prohibiting students from wearing any apparel bearing the image of the flag.

The Hays district, located half an hour south of Austin, decided to take its own action as it watched those events unfold.

“We had people weighing in on both sides of the matter, but in looking at it and making our decision, what we wanted to do was to remove all the symbols of the Confederacy,” Savoy said.

The district has been confronting questions about the use of Confederate-themed imagery for 15 years. It banned the display of the Confederate flag, which had been a mainstay on campus, in 2000, and a few years ago, it banned apparel bearing the flag on school property.

Football player Chris Spencer, a senior at Hurley, shows off his Confederate flag tattoo. “It doesn’t mean racism to me,” he told USA Today. “I just look at it as a flag. It’s our mascot. It just means our school.”

“It’s always a distraction against what we’re doing,” Savoy said. “Our mission is to educate the kids. We don’t think that the students should be ground zero for a national political discussion.”

While “Dixie” is no more—Hays High School is returning to its original fight song, “On Wisconsin,” for this school year—the school has no plan to retire its Rebels mascot. In the district’s statement announcing the decision to drop “Dixie,” it said, “The district believes removing the Confederate flag and ‘Dixie’ divorces all symbols of the Confederacy from the campus and returns the school to its original starting-point—a rebel culture free from historically negative associations.”

The Fort Smith, Ark., school board also decided recently to retire “Dixie” as Southside High School’s theme song. In addition, the board opted to change the school’s long-standing Rebels mascot, although that will not go into effect until the 2016-17 school year.

The board gave “great consideration to the continuing impact of perceived symbols of racism on the community, state, and nation” when weighing whether to retain or remove the mascot and fight song, according to a letter from Superintendent Benny L. Gooden.

The way the school board went about that process, however, spurred one resident to file a lawsuit, alleging the board violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

In June, members of the board initially broached the subject of retiring “Dixie” and the “Rebels,” voting unanimously to end the use of both. The lawsuit alleges, however, that the board failed to disclose its intention to vote on such a proposal in its notice sent to news media. During a regularly scheduled school board meeting in late July, after nearly 40 residents voiced both support and opposition for the proposed change, the board once again unanimously voted to retire the fight song and mascot.

The Georgia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has also called for an end to derogatory names and imagery. In mid-August, chapter President Francys Johnson wrote in a statement, “An honest person cannot deny the larger social implications and ugly connotations the flag and rebel imagery convey.”

He specifically suggested Effingham County High School, in a rural district near Savannah, Ga., which currently uses Rebels as its mascot, should change to the “Patriots.” However, the district opted to keep its current Rebels mascot “not as a name of hate, but as a name associated with pride in one’s school and its traditions,” said Superintendent Randy Shearouse.

Kayla Wilson, a senior at Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, is pushing for a new name for the school, an effort that has led to backlash within her Texas community.

Issue Widespread

According to federal data, nearly 200 schools across the country bear names of Confederate leaders, including Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio. There, Kayla Wilson, an African-American senior, has been leading a campaign to force the school to change its name, which has been in place since 1958.

Earlier this summer, Kayla launched an online petition to rename the school, writing, “In the wake of the Charleston shooting that took the lives of nine African-Americans who were simply going to church, I can tell you that as a young black student, it’s not easy or right to have to learn in a place that honors a man like Robert E. Lee.”

Since her freshman year at Lee, Kayla said she had been bothered by a mosaic tile artwork of the Confederate flag that adorned a courtyard on campus. The flag was recently dismantled due to a construction project. The high school’s student body is 80 percent Hispanic, 13 percent white, and 4 percent black, according to state education data.

Kayla’s petition had more than 10,000 signatures when she presented it to the North East Independent school district board last month. An opposing petition to keep the school’s name was created after Kayla’s, and had garnered more than 6,000 supporters before it ended in early August.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, now the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, publicly supported Kayla’s position, writing on Facebook that “North East ISD should call together a group of board members, students, and community members to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. ... There are other, more appropriate individuals to honor and spotlight as role models for our young people.”

The district has forbidden staff members from publicly commenting on the matter.

What’s in a Name?

In San Diego, the similarly named Robert E. Lee Elementary School spurred California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to urge the district to change the school’s name. In her letter to San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, she wrote the “vibrant, multi-ethnic community with a strong African-American presence … deserves a school named after someone we can all admire. Robert E. Lee is not that person.”

In Houston, six schools named after Confederate loyalists have also come under the scrutiny. Prompted by an inquiry from state Sen. Robert Ellis, the school board earlier this month introduced a proposal that calls for the names of schools to “be aligned to the district’s non-discrimination policies.” Under the proposed changes, the board may indicate “specific facilities for which renaming is deemed to be in the best interest of the district.”

If those changes go into effect, they would further build upon a policy the board adopted last year regarding school mascots. All school mascots must “respect cultural differences and values,” the board declared at the time, thus prohibiting “the use of any race or ethnic group as a mascot or nickname.” Four schools, including one with Rebels as a mascot, were affected by that policy change.

“When we name a school after someone, we send a message to our children that this individual is worthy of honor and praise,” Ellis, a Democrat representing Houston, wrote in a June letter to the board. “As an extremely diverse school district in the most diverse city in the nation, the names of our community schools should not lionize men who dedicated themselves to maintaining the ability of one human to own another.”

Intern Tiara Beatty contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as Schools Seek Split From Confederacy

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