After the Vote: Lee High School Students Speak Out on Name Change

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A group of students gathered around NEISD Board member Sandi Wolff after the vote to remove Robert E. Lee's name from their school.

Photo by Marissa Gonzalez

A group of students gathered around NEISD Board member Sandi Wolff after the vote to remove Robert E. Lee's name from their school.

On Aug. 29 the North East Independent School District (NEISD) board unanimously decided to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. This was a controversial decision given the strong opinions on both sides of the aisle.

The Lee campus is home not only to its namesake high school, but also to the International School of the Americas (ISA), North East School of the Arts (NESA), and a S.T.E.M. program.

The history behind the school’s name is contentious. Some believe that the school was named after an admired Confederate general, while others say it aimed to commemorate the Centennial. There exists another theory: that the school was named to make a statement against desegregation.

In 2015, now-alumna Kayla Wilson moved to change the school’s name due to her personal belief that it was, in fact, racist. A 5-2 vote defeated her proposal.

Two years later the board faced the same proposition. Tensions ran high as board members began to voice their positions. Students from the Committee for Change organization waited with anxious looks while people against the name change sat firmly, hoping for a vote in their favor. Unlike the first time, the board members all agreed to the name change. Now that the decision has been made, members of the Lee community are sharing their opinions.

“It upset me a little more because as a child growing I always heard ‘Robert E. Lee,'” said Juliet Gutierrez, a junior at Lee. “So I always thought I am graduating from Robert E. Lee, but now it’s like I don’t know where I’m going to be graduating from.”

For her the name means more than just the school itself. The change will take a while to complete, so there is time for Juliet to graduate from Lee.

When the school opened in 1958, its original mascot was the Confederate. It has since evolved to the Volunteer. The iconography of the Confederate Flag was used on school shirts, band uniforms, and various other school spirit items until 1991.

“I’m indifferent about the name change, [but] I do support … students coming together to make change within their community,” said Jacob Morales, a cinema student at NESA. Junior Norman Torres agreed. “I don’t really care,” he said.

Janelle, a senior at ISA who asked to be quoted by her first name only, takes a neutral stance on the issue, but does see purpose in the name change.

“… It’s [still very] controversial to this day, and I feel they did the thing they thought was right and to … make people happy and feel comfortable around here, so I don’t really have a problem with it, honestly,” she said.

A few other students, who declined to elaborate or be interviewed fully, shared Janelle’s neutral standpoint.

“It’s a waste of money that could go to janitors and librarians instead of the name change,” Lee senior Clarissa Litterio said about the name change.

Her fellow classmate Victoria Davis had a similar outlook. “I really don’t think it matters for the kids of the school…it’s been this way for almost 60 years and even after the change to the Volunteers since 1992 it has been all right.”

The NEISD board acknowledged that teachers would not be getting pay raises and that they would be laying off janitors at the Lee campus due to budget cuts decided on during the meeting.

“I think [the name change] is great,” said August Garrity-Robbins, a NESA junior in the creative writing program. “The last name was just racist, horrible, and un-American, [and it] should have been changed a long time ago.” August found the original name to be “un-American” due to the long history of Robert E. Lee.

The North East Independent School District Board voted unanimously to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School.

Photo by Marissa Gonzalez

The North East Independent School District Board voted unanimously to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School.

Robert E. Lee was a general known for commanding the Confederate Army during the Civil War from 1862 until he surrendered in 1865. Born into a military family in Westmoreland County, Va., Lee became known for his combat tactics and commander skills. Even then-President Abraham Lincoln scouted Lee for his talents. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Lee chose to align with his own state and joined in the Civil War as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. Lee lived on a plantation and kept slaves.

Students in favor of the name change also shared their opinions.

“I think right now in 2017 it’s [about] time for a change and to have our school be represented and associated with a new figure is a step in that direction,” said a NESA senior, who asked not to be named. “I think it will benefit the school in ways we can’t imagine yet.”

“Lee might have not backed the war entirely, but he did lead a group of soldiers who did agree with the war and its anti-abolitionist followers,” said another student who also did not want to be quoted by name. “I hope that the future students of this high school come to see our efforts to change the name as progressive, although you wouldn’t think that in 2017 we’d still be debating this issue.”

The Lee community has been a house divided since the beginning of the name change debate. With the board’s decision finalized, students are now faced with the challenge of coming up with a new name. Again, the house is divided as the top two front-running names for the school (according to the students) are Michelle Obama and Bruce Lee High School, but lest we forget, legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a contender as well.

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