In middle school, a neighbor told Dalia Palchik he “hated Hispanics.”
In high school, a counselor told Palchik’s mother she should send her daughter to community college — because that’s where immigrants should go.
As a Fairfax County School Board member, Palchik said a colleague once asserted institutional racism no longer existed.
“I don’t often share my story. I definitely hid it as a child growing up here because I felt it was the best way to be accepted as an equal,” she recalled Thursday night, as she tried to underscore the importance of renaming J.E.B. Stuart High School.
Ultimately, a divided school board voted 7 to 4 to adopt the moniker Justice High for the Northern Virginia school, erasing the name of a Confederate general.
The vote drew to an end a years-long debate that has found echoes across the South as communities clash over which figures deserve to be honored in public spaces and the appropriate destination for Confederate imagery.
Sandy Evans, the board member who represents the area where the school sits, made the official call to rename it Justice High.
“We are doing the right thing by changing the name to one that reflects and celebrates values we hold dear,” Evans said.
In suburban Falls Church, the situation pitted those who viewed keeping the Stuart name as a travesty against community members who regarded the name change as a financially wasteful attempt to erase history.
As with the fraught back-and-forth that preceded it, Thursday’s discussion was lengthy and wide-ranging.
Karen Keys-Gamarra, an at-large member, spoke of the subtle ways African American children are harmed.
“We take the past and we say, ‘Honey, I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is,’ ” Keys-Gamarra said. “As African American parents, we have to sit our kids down. We have to tell them how to deal with the police. We have to tell them how not to move when they’re stopped. That is the thing that I do not want to tell our children to swallow.”
Community members carried signs and wore shirts that read “Change The Name.” Jeers rippled through the auditorium when particularly unpopular points of view were shared. A decision wasn’t reached until nearly midnight.
A separate vote to rename the school after Col. Louis G. Mendez Jr., a decorated Army colonel who served in World War II and longtime Fairfax resident, was unsuccessful after the 12-member school board deadlocked.
The name Justice High was scrutinized before eventually rising to the top.
Board members who supported the name viewed it as a compromise. It embodied, they said, the wishes of those who wanted to name the school after Thurgood Marshall. The Supreme Court justice received the second-most support during a nonbinding community vote in the summer on changing the name.
But naming the school after Marshall, others said, would cause confusion with nearby George C. Marshall High School.
Justice High, they said, would acknowledge other figures who have stood for equal rights, including Mendez and Barbara Rose Johns, who fought for school integration as a teenager. Mendez and Johns also received significant support during the community vote.
Dissenting board members disagreed with those arguments. Voting to name the school Justice High, board member Elizabeth Schultz said, would go against residents’ desires.
“We’re going to make up a new name that isn’t a name and we’re going to substitute it for all of the wonderful possibilities the community brought forward,” Schultz said.
Other top choices from the community vote would have dropped the initials J.E.B. and simply called the school “Stuart,” or named it Peace Valley, the street on which the school sits.
As the panel closed in on its vote late Thursday, Megan O. McLaughlin and several other board members turned their attention to healing a split community.
“More than anything, I really hope we come away tonight — not just the board of 12, but our community — to stop labeling each other with very hurtful, divisive labels,” she said.