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Staunton Community Engages in Debate over High School Name

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People are discussing the name of Robert E. Lee High School People are discussing the name of Robert E. Lee High School
Mary Montijo, one of the session attendees Mary Montijo, one of the session attendees
People came out in the dozens to debate the name People came out in the dozens to debate the name
Robert E. Lee High School Robert E. Lee High School
STAUNTON, Va. (WVIR) -

The Staunton community is sounding off when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness within the city's school system.

Right now, the biggest debate is over one school’s name – Robert E. Lee High School.

“Our current name harms us all,” says CJ Hill, who teaches at Shelburne Middle School. “It projects the wrong idea about our city and how we treat people of color.”

Before 1914, it was known as Staunton High School.

“Staunton High School was renamed in his honor at the height of legalized discrimination,” says George Sproul, a retired pediatrician. “His name was a symbol of white supremacy, so it is not hard to understand why people of color are deeply offended.”

On Tuesday, July 10, dozens of people showed up at the gym at Gypsy Hill Park during a listening session about diversity and inclusivity to debate the school’s name.

“I'm 1000 percent against the name change,” says Jessica Sawyers, who attended the session. “But for me, it has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with history. It has nothing to do with racism.”

Many – as demonstrated by the signs around town and the thousands of online petition signatures - are in favor of keeping the "Lee" moniker.

Some say money for a name change could be better spent elsewhere.

“Spending a million dollars to change the name while our children are going without is simply irresponsible,” says Donna Tinsley, who lives in Staunton. “Until such time as my faith in Staunton City Schools is restored to provide my children with all the tools they need for a quality education, I cannot support restoring the name.”

Some say the issue should be put on the ballot.

“You want to settle it in an equitable way, there needs to be a referendum where the sole issue is, ‘do you support spending the money changing the name or don't you?’ That needs to be done,” says John Hartless, a former city councilor.

Others suggest dropped “Robert E.” and just going with “Lee.”

"To me, Lee means learning, education, and excellence,” says Pat Wortman, who lives in Staunton. “I have always heard students and individuals call it Lee High - very seldom do I ever hear Robert E. Lee.”

Current students and recent graduates also weighed in on the topic.

“Driving into a parking lot that says Robert E. Lee High School on it makes students - whether or not they're black or they're white - feel very uncomfortable,” says Hanna Kivlighan, a student at the high school.

“I am proud to go there, and I will be proud to graduate as a fighting Leeman,” says Mary Montijo, a student at the high school.

The second listening session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the same location.

The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities will use all the information gathered over recent months, including the listening sessions, and bring the results back to school leaders.

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