The El Paso Independent School District’s board of trustees voted 5-1 Tuesday to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School.
The vote comes amid a growing call to rename public spaces and remove statues honoring confederate figures, as protests against police brutality and racial injustice continue throughout Texas and across the U.S.
Trustees Freddy Klayel-Avalos and Josh Acevedo put the item on the agenda.
“Neither myself and three other trustees and the superintendent and certain administrators, many of our teachers, most of our students and most of our community would not have been part of EPISD had Robert E. Lee had his way and had the confederacy won,” Klayel-Avalos said during the virtual board meeting.
In EPISD, 84% of are Latinx, 3% are black and 1% are Asian, according to 2018-2019 enrollment data.
Acevedo said he’s looking at ways to transform EPISD into an anti-racist district, and that removing Lee’s name from one of its schools is a first step.
Superintendent Juan Cabrera did not have a vote, but voiced his support of a name change.
“Any remnants of our negative past, of racism, I’m fine with working with the board to make sure we eliminate those and make sure we reflect the more inclusive, the more diverse future,” Cabrera said.
All five members of the public who called into the meeting spoke in favor of the measure, including El Paso resident Ryan Mattison, who started an online petition to rename the school.
“As a black veteran of the armed forces I find it personally and professionally offensive to glorify Robert E. Lee,” Mattison said, adding “it makes people of color feel they are unsafe in their own communities because to us, he represents oppression and slavery.”
Former EPISD board member and president Isela Castañon-Williams noted Lee Elementary opened in the mid-50s, just after the landmark Supreme Court ruling ending school segregation.
“Many people in positions of power at the time who were opposed to equality for all people established monuments and named public schools after confederate generals,” during this time, she said.
Diane Dye, whose district includes Lee Elementary, was the only trustee to vote against the measure.
“There is no confederate symbolism anywhere,” she said of the school.
Dye said she had been fielding emails from community members who felt “that they were given no notice” about, or any input in, the decision.
“I am sorry that two trustees did not take the time to go and discuss with the community that they are trying to harass, did not go and talk with them,” Dye said.
Cabrera noted that the vote is just the beginning of the process. The district will now engage the community in discussions about what the school should be called in the future.
“If the community came back to us and chose to keep the name Robert E. Lee, that could come out of the process,” Cabrera said.
The board will have the final vote on a new name.