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Long Beach school board to consider renaming Robert E. Lee Elementary

Long Beach Unified School District board members announced Monday they will form a committee to review all school names and determine whether to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary.

The committee will also be asked to provide school board members with a list of potential names for new schools and revise district policies related to school names.

The announcement comes more than two weeks after civil rights activists from the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable began calling on district and city officials to rename the elementary school.

The group launched an online campaign and delivered a petition to the district to pressure officials to take on the issue.

Scrutiny over Robert E. Lee Elementary came in the wake of the fatal shooting of nine black men and women worshiping last month at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Photos of the suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof—who authorities believe wanted to start a race war—show him posing with the battle flag of the Confederacy.

Most of the scrutiny fell on the battle flag, but eventually spread to monuments, schools and other public facilities that pay homage to figures of the losing side of the Civil War.

At least one state lawmaker has called on the San Diego Unified School District to rename a school that is named after the Confederate general. Another has proposed a bill that would prohibit the naming of state and local properties after Confederate leaders.

Monday's Long Beach school board meeting drew more than two dozen people. Several of them supported renaming Robert E. Lee Elementary. Among them was 49-year-old David Boyle of Long Beach, who said the name needed to be retired.

"He was a great general but his cause was the wrong cause," Boyle said. "His time is done."

Boyle told the board to consider renaming the school after Harper Lee, the American novelist who wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird." He said this would reduce the cost of renaming the institution.

"This way you have one Lee instead of the other."

Thomas P. Chumley, member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, urged the board to be reasonable when deciding to rename the school.

"Historical figures cannot legitimately be judged by our times, but must be judged by the times they lived in," Chumley said. "Make a decision based on the facts and your own judgment, and not on the uninformed emotional opinions of those who might not have a good grasp on our history."

Several people, including a Long Beach councilwoman and a former city manager, recommended that the school be named after Jenny Oropeza, a former state senator from Long Beach.

Oropeza served on the Long Beach school board in the late 1980s and by the mid-'90s became the first Latina to serve on the Long Beach City Council. Many in the room praised her work as a lawmaker and wore "Jenny Oropeza" buttons.

Other names mentioned were Haing Ngor, a Cambodian American actor, physician and author.

School board officials say the committee's makeup will reflect the city's diversity and will most likely begin meeting by mid-August.

It's not the first time school officials have considered renaming a school named after a controversial figure.

Last September, district officials renamed Peter Burnett Elementary.

Burnett was the first civilian governor of California and signed into law the creation of the first 27 counties, including Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

Before his arrival in California, Burnett served on the 1844 Legislative Committee of Oregon. While there, he proposed a law that would force former black slaves to leave that state, and any who failed to do so would be subject to arrests and lashings. Voters rescinded the law in 1845.

A year after moving to California, Burnett was elected the first governor in December 1849. During his inaugural address, he endorsed a similar black exclusion law.

Burnett received heavy criticism and became unpopular with other lawmakers. After just a little over a year in office, he resigned.

The school name received scrutiny after a Long Beach instructor raised concerns about it. The school board later renamed it after Bobbie Smith, the first African American elected to the school board.

According to state records, there are at least three schools named after Peter H. Burnett, including one in Hawthorne.

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