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Burbank school board votes to change name of David Starr Jordan Middle School

After months of deliberation and public input, the Burbank Unified school board unanimously voted to change the name of David Starr Jordan Middle School on Thursday.

The school’s now-former namesake was a proponent of eugenics, a system of controlled breeding aimed at improving the chances of so-called desirable heritable characteristics.

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From 1910 until 1964, 20,000 people considered less-than-desirable, such as minorities and people with mental disabilities, were forcibly sterilized in California due in part to the philosophy of eugenics.

The theory was espoused by the Nazis and before them notable people, such as Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

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Given Jordan’s eugenics background, several people at the board meeting — students, teachers and alumni — found that such beliefs are an insult to Burbank’s diverse and inclusive spirit.

Community members highlighted that when the school was established in the 1940s and named after Jordan, there were 90,000 Caucasians living in Burbank, with only 29 African Americans.

They said the city’s demographics have since changed and demanded the school’s name be renamed to reflect that.

“Were he alive, David Starr Jordan would have no place in Burbank, and the same should be said about his name,” said Joshua Goodman, president of Burbank Democratic Club.

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“No longer should students of color, neuro-atypical students and [those] with differing levels of physical disability be asked to walk through a building that bears the name of a person who opposed their very existence,” Goodman added.

Others pointed out that Jordan was more than just a proponent of eugenics.

He also studied fish biology and served as the founding president of Stanford University, one of the most prominent schools in the country.

However, for the majority of people at the meeting, it was apparent that, for them, Jordan epitomized nothing but the worst in humanity.

Armond Aghakhanian, the school board’s vice president, related the eugenics ideology to that of the Ottoman Turks during the Armenian Genocide, when they killed 1.5 million Armenians, beginning in 1915, due to the fact that “they were different.”

He added, “This is not complicated. It’s very personal, and it is important to send that message.”

Board member Steve Ferguson held back tears as he shared why he thought it was crucial to remove the name of a man who was against “a world with beautiful differences.”

“As a member of a class who not only was in camps [during Nazi Germany], but as soon as those camps were liberated, [we were] marched into Soviet jails, because there was something wrong with us, I know what it’s like to be in a campus and to feel like you don’t belong,” Ferguson said.

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“Why would we want that for anyone?” he added.

Roberta Reynolds, board president, also got emotional, as she imagined that her Filipino son-in-law and, therefore, her grandson, would have been considered “unfit” for survival by Jordan’s standards.

Challenging yet important questions were asked during the meeting.

Those opposed to the name change said they were unsettled about the ignored aspects of the move, pointing out that memories and the emotional attachment of alumni would be at stake, as well as the financial burden the name change would pose for the school district in a time of proposed budget cuts.

Nonetheless, board members and others in favor of the name change pushed back, claiming that it is no longer a funding issue, but that of character, representation and acceptance within Burbank Unified.

A possible new name for the school, located at 420 S. Mariposa St., Burbank, will be discussed at a later date.

Sahakyan is a contributor to Times Community News.

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