Since summer 2017, students at Robert E. Lee High School have led the discussion regarding a name change, and now they’re calling on the Tyler ISD School Board to include them in conversations happening about the issue.
In the year between the meeting in which students and community members first requested a name change, and when the board let a motion to vote die by refusing to second it a year later, students attended every board meeting even when the conversation seemed to be losing steam.
Now those students, some of whom have since graduated, are asking why they’re not being included in conversations taking place among community leaders.
On Wednesday, a group of students hosted a press conference across the street from the new Robert E. Lee High School facility to make their voice heard.
Nick Knight and fellow student Honor Neal read a prepared statement from the group. Both Knight and Neal have attended numerous board meetings over the past three years alongside their siblings and classmates. Many of the students present brought their homework to board meetings during the yearlong period the board postponed a decision.
“We are here today to demand we be involved in any and all discussions to change the name of our school. We understand that many community leaders are getting together to seriously discuss this issue. However, we are also community leaders in our churches, classrooms and extracurriculars,” Knight said. “We are the future of Tyler, and we are the ones who most immediately reap the benefits and negative consequences of the decisions being made in our town. If you are having meetings to discuss these issues, students from both Lee and John Tyler need a prominent seat at the table.”
Neal added that changing the name is just the first symbolic step in what they are trying to accomplish.
“We are imploring that the school board to take steps to create a real, long-term change in our entire district. This would include implementing implicit bias training for all teachers and staff working toward a more integrated student body, especially in our advanced programs and creating a system more suited for our majority, minority student body,” Neal said. “Multiple school districts are beginning the process of external examination and Tyler can be the leader in our region by executing these principles as well.”
Neal said the group wants the school board to acknowledge that their decision will directly impact them the most, but they’re being shut out of meetings they have asked to be part of.
“We don’t know what decisions are being made,” she said. “We know that we need to have a seat at the table, and say that ‘if you are making decisions you need to have the students in mind and therefore the students at the table.’”
She said that while recent community support has left them hopeful, they’re proceeding with caution.
“I’m more optimistic, but I almost don’t want to be,” she said. “Because we were so disappointed last time.”
“We were completely blindsided,” Class of 2019 graduate Caroline Crawford added.
Crawford, no relation to Superintendent Marty Crawford or Lee Principal Dr. Dan Crawford, said the board has the opportunity to send a powerful message to those watching around the nation, after the issue became the focal point of nationwide news coverage last month.
“I think (changing the name) is going to prove that we are a city that’s modern and can take new businesses and restaurants, and we’re ready to keep up with the rest of the country,” she said. “We’re not stuck in the past.”
Crawford said that after the board decided not to move forward with a vote either way, she was hurt because they were expected to just go back to school and pretend they hadn’t spent a year fighting for the change.
“I think just last time sitting there and watching no one second the motion for a vote, just felt like they don’t really care enough about what’s happening to even vote on the issue,” she said. “It just makes me feel like, ‘are they serious about caring about it this time or are they just going to do what they can to sweep it under the rug?’”
The group said the next steps for the board need to include student voices, and also a dedication to accurately teaching the history of segregation and race relations in Tyler.
“This process of healing our community does not end with simply changing the names of buildings. We need to take a deep dive into our district and recognizing ways we can better serve our students and right our wrongs,” Knight said. “One of our core values of Tyler ISD is effectively and responsibly utilizing community resources. As we’re making decisions for our school we need to help our local community to better represent the city we all call home.”