“The concept of liberty is woven throughout our history, and I find that there’s a clear, logical and organic story and narrative that we can build from that name,” school board member Barbara Kanninen said.
The committee’s first choice, Washington-Loving, failed to receive support from a majority of the school board. That name would have honored the Virginia couple — Richard and Mildred Loving — who successfully challenged the state’s ban on interracial marriage before the Supreme Court.
Monique O’Grady, a school board member who preferred Loving, said “liberty” will usher in “new opportunity, a new generation” for the school.
The decision marked the end of a months-long debate in the more-than-27,400-student school system. It followed similar efforts across the country to remove Confederate reminders from public spaces after the deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.
Last year, the name of a Fairfax County high school that commemorated J.E.B. Stuart, a Confederate cavalry commander, was changed to Justice High School. A Richmond elementary school that also honored Stuart now carries former president Barack Obama’s name.
In Arlington, school officials began reconsidering the place of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the school system after the events in Charlottesville. Lee had a long association with Arlington and lived in Arlington House, the landmark building at the site that became Arlington National Cemetery.
Supporters of the renaming — the “Washington” part that remains honors George Washington — argued that it is inappropriate for the diverse school system to venerate a person who fought to preserve slavery and whose memory evokes painful reminders of laws that segregated and excluded African Americans from public life.
Those opposed to stripping Lee’s name say proponents of the renaming failed to consider the Confederate general’s postwar legacy, and they have argued that the renaming was initiated by an overzealous school board. Opponents maintained Thursday that severing ties with Lee would tarnish the school’s history.
Dean Fleming, vice president of the school’s alumni association, accused the school board of rushing the process.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” he said. “There’s a much better way to do this.”
The school board approved new school naming guidelines in June that say if a school is named for a person, the person’s “principal legacy” must reflect the values of Arlington Public Schools. Washington-Lee’s name, the school board unanimously determined, violated that provision.
Three unnamed students and their parents argued in a lawsuit that the standard was too subjective.
“If a person is ‘most known’ — out of ignorance of the person’s actual accomplishments — for things that do not truly represent the person’s life, positions held, actions, or the like, then the naming criteria allows popular ignorance to govern the decision,” the lawsuit read.
An Arlington County Circuit Court judge in December dismissed the lawsuit, which was financed by Washington-Lee’s alumni association.
A committee of students, school system employees and alumni considered community input before recommending last month that the school board adopt Washington-Loving as the name. The couple’s fight in the Supreme Court, the committee explained, represented inclusion, acceptance and the pursuit of happiness.
The group offered Washington-Liberty as a second option, reasoning that the quest for liberty courses through U.S. history.
Thornton Thomas, a freshman who served on the renaming committee, said he thought the school system could have better educated the community about why a renaming was necessary.
But Thomas, 14, said honoring Lee violated the school’s values.
“It doesn’t really show the spirit of integrity when you have the name of the leader of the Confederate army on your school,” he said.