Sun Gazette editorial: A lesson for those eager to change school names


Before leaders of the Fairfax County school system rush higgledy-piggledy toward changing names of schools that don’t fit their definition of political correctness, they might want to glance just a few miles to the south to see what happens when ham-handedness goes awry.

There, the Prince William County School Board has come under fire both for changing the name of a middle school, and for doing so in a high-handed manner that avoided any semblance of community involvement.


It must have sounded like a good idea to some in Prince William: Mills Godwin, a late two-term governor but one with no direct connection to the community, seemed an odd choice for a school name from the beginning, so school officials recently decided to change it to honor George Hampton, an African-American leader in Prince William.

Then, after a rushed vote, all hell broke loose. This being 2016, it was concentrated largely on social media, but a certain ugliness gravitated to the real world, as well.

Prince William School Board members, some of them brand new to their positions, were left trying to defend the indefensible – they moved far too quickly, too unilaterally and without public participation in the decision-making process.

In Fairfax, there has been recent rabble-rousing aimed at changing the names of J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee and W.T. Woodson high schools, largely because the namesakes do not represent modern-day values.

We’ve opined on this before, calling it a silly effort by people who have a hard time understanding that you can’t unilaterally impose expectations of one generation on those who came before. Once you begin, where does it  stop? (Students of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, trust us on this: Once the names of Stuart, Lee and Woodson are erased, Stalin-style, from the roster of schools, they’ll be coming after you next.)

Fairfax school leaders should heed the lessons of the Prince William debacle.

No matter what they end up doing, a name-change effort should only be undertaken if (a) there is a true effort to listen to the full community, not just the noisiest few, (b) there is no preordained decision and (c) absent a persuasive argument to the contrary, better to do nothing than make any changes.

This fight will imply not go away.  Saying I am sorry won’t fix it.  Saying “somebody done somebody wrong” won’t right wrongs.

PWC School Board was wrong on so many fronts, starting with process.  Go no further than to simply accept they didn’t follow their own policy:  They have named two schools after living people.  The honor is to be bestowed posthumously.

Then the PWC  School Board committed the unconscionable–they made a unilateral decision without involving the community.  You just don’t do that unless you want to be hated for taking away people’s identity , sense of past, sense of belonging.  The Godwin community belongs to…the Godwin Community.  The community wasn’t asked.  They were told and part of their social identity was stripped away in the process.

Honoring a person should not be about taking something away from someone else.  Prince William County will be growing and new schools will be built.  New roads will be paved.  New parks will be developed.  Surely Dr. Hampton can be honored without harming a community that has been in the eastern party of the county for nearly 45 years.

This new school board stumbled coming out of the gate.  The county expects better in the future.  They can start by undoing the mess they have made.






3 Thoughts to “Word to the wise on change school names: Involve the community”

  1. Big Dog

    “Former Gov. Mills Godwin ,Jr. of Virginia rose above
    his segregationist past to become one of the state’s
    most effective chief executives….he attracted whites,
    African-Americans, liberals and conservatives.
    …. His primary legacy is a community college system that
    gives Virginia an educational basis for economic growth.”
    From NYT obit 2-2–1999.

    1. Hi Big Dog, good to see you! How goes it?

      I am very disappointed in Prince William County Schools and their amateur hour behaviors. It makes me ashamed that I worked for them.

      The cure though, is laughing all the way to the bank with the VRS check. School boards come and school boards go.

  2. MoonHowler

    The school board will revisit this issue on Wednesday night, April 6.

    Stripping schools of names could get to be dicey. For instance, its obvious that Stonewall Jackson would be next. How about Leesylvania Elementary? Battlefield? Some of the old dudes who were segregationists, (whatever that means) just because of the times they lived certainly would be stripped if that is the criteria. (Tyler, Sinclair, Marstellar, etc)

    Would we make Corey Stewart move out of his home since its an old plantation? How about the school named Bel Aire? Don’t laugh. Who would have thought that Godwin Middle was in danger after being there 45 years.

    Active malice is very different than living with the status quo. As we all know, thinking back to many events in our lives, bucking the status quo is not all that easy.

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