Onomastics is the study of the origin, history and use of proper names. A lawsuit filed Thursday in the San Francisco Superior Court said the San Francisco Board of Education failed the course.
It is about the process by which the board determined which schools in the San Francisco Unified School District bore the names of people who did not deserve to be so honored, whether because they were slave owners, or had subjugated tribal peoples were otherwise responsible for racist, sexist purposes or other abusive behavior.
By resolution dated January 26, 2021, the board voted 6: 1 to approve a report by the School Names Committee, a so-called “Blue Ribbon Panel”, which targeted the names of 44 district schools for removal, including this one named after Abraham Lincoln (Cruelty to indigenous peoples), George Washington (slave owners), and Diane Feinstein (alleged support for the Confederate flag).
The board’s action was widely criticized and came at a time when the district schools were closed because of the pandemic, even though many independent schools in the city had reopened. A comment in the national media ridiculed the decision as an expression of a school board that was more interested in “culture break” than in the education of the district’s 57,000 students.
The outcry was so loud that CEO Gabriela Lopez – at the time hardly six weeks in action – admitted errors in the process and promised to suspend work on the renaming project until the district students were back in their personal school.
While some thought their Mea Culpa had ended the matter, a local lawyer representing several alumni associations and graduates of the affected schools urged the district to overturn the resolution and dissolve the body. When the district did not respond, he filed a mandate application.
The petitioners’ attorneys include San Francisco attorneys Paul D. Scott and Lani Anne Remick, and Laurence Tribe, Professor Emeritus at Carl M. Loeb University, Retired from Harvard Law School.
Tribe’s treatise on American constitutional law is the most cited legal text in American law since 1950, according to Tribe’s biography on Harvard’s website.
Tribe – a veteran with more than 35 arguments in the US Supreme Court – graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School (aged 16) before becoming a noted constitutional scholar and lawyer.
The petition alleged that “petitioners will suffer irreparable harm as the names of 44 schools will remain on an official public list that damages their reputations by characterizing their names as morally inconsistent with San Francisco values.”
On the same day the petition was filed, Supreme Court Justice Ethan Schulman issued an “Alternative Mandate Letter” instructing the district to overturn the resolution and dissolve the panel or attend a May 6 hearing attend to explain why this was not the case.
An alternative letter is a court order that gives the respondent the choice of doing what the plaintiff requests or attending a hearing to prove that it shouldn’t be necessary.
The petition was based on an alleged series of errors in the drafting of the report which formed the basis of the contested resolution. The alleged mistakes included that the renaming panel was biased and its research was sloppy.
For example, the petition claims that the research was based on Wikipedia articles and occasional commentary, not scientific research. The petition mischievously suggests that students are advised not to rely on Wikipedia in their school newspapers, but this has been the main source of the panel’s decisions.
The petition also claims that the panel did not include historians as they believed they were not necessary to the findings it made.
A key claim was that the panel was considering whether the individuals could be classified into one of seven categories of offensive behavior, disregarding historical context, or whether the individuals had taken other virtuous acts that outweighed their offensive views or behaviors.
The petition alleges that the panel was biased and used this approach selectively. When asked, for example, whether the Malcolm X Academy should be renamed for its allegedly offensive words and actions relating to women and Jews, the panel said that its other accomplishments and work outweighed those views, but they did not follow that standard when them as Washington and Lincoln.
The lawsuit also challenged the Board’s decision to adopt the panel’s report. According to the filing, the board failed to comply with the public assembly law, as the assembly’s public notice described the resolution merely as identifying schools for “possible renaming” without specifying that the schools identified would lose their names , and further public contributions would be limited to new names.
The petitioners also stated that alumni of the schools were deliberately excluded from the panel’s review of names, even though alumni “appear to represent by far the largest number of people who have a direct interest in the name of the school they attended” .
One of the schools on the renaming list was Lowell High School because James Russell Lowell allegedly did not want black people to be given the right to vote. According to the petition, the research leading to this conclusion was flawed and the scientific work shows that Lowell was an abolitionist who supported the extension of the franchise to ex-slaves.
Explaining the decision to apply for the alternate letter, Scott explained, “If this case had followed normal, it would have taken weeks for the petition to even be processed by the clerk’s office and then another extended period for an application to be made would be tuned and listened to. The school board buried its head in the sand and ignored our request to overturn the renaming resolution and dissolve the committee. ”
According to Scott, “alternative mandate letters are seldom issued. An alternative mandate letter can be issued if there is a risk of irreparable damage. We have successfully argued that our situation is urgent. ”
The lawsuit follows a pending lawsuit and a threatened lawsuit, which is also causing the board of directors a headache. In the pending lawsuit, prosecutor Dennis Herrera is leading a team of city attorneys who want to force the board to reopen the city’s closed schools.
On the other issue, the Board was moved, because of its decision to move Lowell from a selective admissions school, where admission is determined by academic achievement reflected in grades and test scores, to a lottery admissions school where all district students are placed Eligible if chosen at random.
The district has not publicly stated whether it will overturn the contested renaming decision and dissolve the nomination committee or appear at the May 6 hearing to contest the petition.