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Shenandoah County school name challenges dismissed

Jason Boleman//April 12, 2021

Shenandoah County school name challenges dismissed

Jason Boleman//April 12, 2021

An effort to reverse the decision by the Shenandoah County School Board to retire the names of two public schools named after Confederate veterans has failed.

In the case, Alger v. Shenandoah County School Bd., Shenandoah County Circuit Judge John E. Wetsel Jr. sustained the school board’s demurrer and dismissed the petitioners’ complaint with prejudice. Wetsel additionally denied the petitioners’ motion to file an amended complaint. 

The petition stems from a July 9 vote by the school board to “retire” the names of Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby Lee Elementary School, as well as the Rebel mascot at North Fork Middle School. Stonewall Jackson High is named after the Confederate general of the same name, while Ashby Lee Elementary is named after Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby and Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The vote followed a June 25 resolution by the school board “condemning racism and affirming the division’s commitment to an inclusive school environment for all” drafted in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and nationwide protests against racial injustice early in the summer.

A petition of more than 140 residents was filed in the Shenandoah County Circuit Court against the school board. The petition claimed that the school board “exceeded its authority” by retiring the names without consulting with the county board of supervisors, that the school board violated numerous portions of its policy code and that “petitioners are aggrieved in that they love the aforesaid names and changing them will cause great upset and discord in their homes, these schools, and the community.”

Woodstock attorney Brad Pollack submitted the petition on Aug. 10. Pollack, who serves on the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, declined to comment for this story.

The petition was filed under Virginia Code § 22.1-87, which gives parents, custodians and legal guardians of a student in a public school system 30 days to petition the circuit court to review the actions of a school board if the pupil is aggrieved by an action of the school board.

Wetsel ruled that the petitioners were not aggrieved in the eyes of the code, stating that the petitioners did not plead or reasonably argue an aggrievement created by the school board’s decision.

“Whether a person is aggrieved is an objective determination, and no violation of the requisite personal right, injury, or burden, which has allegedly been violated by the School Board, has been pleaded or reasonably argued in this case,” Wetsel wrote.

“The Petitioners’ zealous interest in their public schools is commendable, but the Petitioners’ reliance on the law to address their objections to the School Board’s actions in this case is misplaced,” Wetzel wrote in the order.

The petitioners were represented by Reston attorney Robert L. Vaughn Jr. and Pollack. The school board was represented by Harrisonburg lawyers Lindsay Brubaker and T. Joel Francis.

“We were gratified because the court essentially vindicated the school board’s actions on July 9, 2020,” Brubaker said. “The court’s decision reaffirms that the school board’s actions were consistent with its authority and as otherwise prescribed by law.”

The petitioners also filed a motion to disqualify the school board’s counsel due to a conflict of interests. Wetsel wrote that a State Bar ethics opinion indicated that no conflict existed and denied the motion.

On Jan. 14, the Shenandoah County School Board approved new school names during a board meeting. Stonewall Jackson High School will become Mountain View High School and Ashby Lee Elementary School will become Honey Run Elementary School. The new school names will go into effect on July 1. North Fork Middle School’s mascot will become the Generals after 90% of respondents to a survey voted for that option over the Rattlers. The new mascot name also will go into effect July 1.

Brubaker filed a motion for sanctions in the case. The petitioners also filed a sanctions motion against the school board. The court denied all motions for sanctions on March 31.

Update to the final paragraph filed April 15, 2021.

The following correction will appear in the April 19 print edition:

The April 12 story, “Shenandoah County school name challenge dismissed,” incorrectly reported that a motion for sanctions was filed by the defendant school board against one of the petitioners’ lawyers, Robert Vaughn. In fact, the sanctions motion did not name any particular person.

The petitioners also filed a motion for sanctions against the school board. The court denied all sanctions motions on March 31.

Virginia Lawyers Weekly apologizes for and regrets the errors.

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