Tensions flared in a community meeting Thursday night, where the majority Black student body of Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School and a group of mainly white alumni argued over whether to rename the Riverside-area school.
“The student body is made up of mostly people of color, yet this building stands as a monument for a racist, sexist, confederate military leader who owned slaves,” said Lee High senior Amiyah Jacobs. “If students really matter, change the name!”
Opponents of changing the name argued that the cost to taxpayers was too high, and that the emotional connection of alumni to the name Robert E. Lee was worth preserving.
“This same group of people have tried to defund the police, kind of what you’re seeing in these cities that are burning to the ground and have spikes in crime,” said community member Blake Harper. “My question to you is, with all these bad things happening elsewhere, how can we legitimately consider this to be a worthwhile effort?”
The meeting took place amid escalating tensions around the school’s name.
Earlier this week, administrators asked Robert E. Lee High School teacher Amy Donofrio to remove a Black Lives Matter flag from her classroom. Donofrio refused, and was subsequently removed from teaching duties and put under investigation by the district.
Students organized a walkout Wednesday to protest the situation and to make their voices heard about the school’s name change. The school administration blocked the protest, saying students did not have the appropriate permission to demonstrate.
In a statement to WJCT News, a spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools said: “The district has opened a human resources matter to review allegations of potential misconduct under school board policy and the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida. The presumption of innocence applies; however, Ms. Donofrio has been removed from school and classroom duties while the matter is reviewed.”
The spokesperson referenced a school board policy that says teachers may not attempt to influence students to support or oppose any candidate, party or issue.
At Thursday’s meeting, community member John Warren connected the administration’s push to remove a Black Lives Matter flag to the institutions’ being named for a Confederate. “From its founding in 1927 until it was desegregated in 1971, Black lives did not matter in this school,” Warren said. “I am distressed to hear that the banner supporting Black Lives Matter was just removed from this school, which still bears the name of a slave-owning Confederate general.”
Thursday’s meeting was the last in a series on the name change for Robert E. Lee High School. Community stakeholders, including current and former students, will vote on potential new names for the school in the coming weeks. The name Robert E. Lee High will also be on the list, so it’s possible that the school’s name will not change.
Contact Sydney Boles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.