Four years after balking at the change, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is poised to change the name of Lee High School, which has been under attack for years for its association with Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

unanimous vote late Thursday night allows Superintendent Warren Drake to convene a school renaming committee and report back with alternative names.

"It's time to do it, it's time to do it right now," said Superintendent Warren Drake.

The resolution approved Thursday night calls for a committee made up of two representatives each from the student body, the community in which the school is located, employees of the school system and the School Board. That committee is charged with proposing three alternative names, and Drake will pick from that one name to give to the board.

A long line of African-American community members and the four African-American board members, led by board member Dadrius Lanus, sought to have the name changed by July 16.

Board President Mike Gaudet submitted a substitute motion that would have put off a vote until mid-September. He later withdrew it amid a lot of blowback, saying "I did not intend to ignite a controversy."

With the clock nearing midnight, the board soon after approved Lanus's original motion. 

Gaudet, whose district includes Lee High, said he supports changing the name, but said he’s sensitive to recent criticism that the board doesn’t give the community enough time to comment on public issues.

“What I’m trying to do is to give the public time for input to decide what the new name should be,” Gaudet said.

Lanus, who joined the board in January 2019, said he wanted to change name earlier, but said he wrongfully agreed to wait.

"I will never wait again on an issue that affects the whole parish," Lanus said.

Thursday's vote occurred amid a backdrop of protest across the nation calling for the end of police brutality of African Americans.

In June 2016, the board stopped short of totally changing the school’s name. Splitting along racial lines, in a 5-4 vote, the board kept the school named Lee High School, except to excise the “Robert E” part of the name which had been there since the school opened in 1959.

On Thursday, a series of speakers all urged the board to get rid of Lee from the school’s name and do it fast.

Walter “Geno” McLaughlin, a Lee High graduate, said it’s beyond too long to change the name.

“You got to listen to black people,” McLaughlin said. “If we tell you something is racist, it’s racist. If we say the time is now, the time is now.”

Cleve Dunn Jr., a local businessman and president of the Capitol High alumni, named board members by name who failed to act in 2016 when this issue came up.

“Ms. (Jill) Dyason, Mr. (David) Tatman, Ms. (Connie) Bernard, Mr. (Mark) Bellue," Dunn said. "We’re here because of you. This happened on your watch. You didn’t take care of business four years ago."

Bernard, in particular, faced fierce criticism because of a June 10th interview with WVLA-33, in which she said parents and students uncomfortable with a school named Lee High don’t know their history.

“I would hope that they would learn a little bit more about General Lee, because General Lee inherited a large plantation and he was tasked with the job of doing something with those people who lived in bondage to that plantation, the slaves, and he freed them,” Bernard said.

A parade of speakers, including three of her fellow School Board members, strongly criticized Bernard on Thursday.

“You should walk out of here and resign and never come back,” said Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, “because you are the example of racism in this community. You are horrible.”

Just prior to taking the mike, Chambers posted a picture of Bernard on her laptop, apparently shopping online for dresses. As he started speaking, he held up his phone.

“This is a picture of you shopping while we’re talking about the history of racism in this country,” Chambers said. “You don’t give a damn.”

Bernard told The Advocate Friday that what people saw on her laptop was an accident, a pop up ad that she failed to close. She said she was struggling with technology Thursday, going back and forth between a district-owned and a personal computer.

“I wasn’t shopping,” she said. “I was actually taking notes, paying attention, reading online comments.”

Bernard apologized for the comments she had made about Lee.

“My comments last week about the naming of Lee High School were insensitive, have caused pain for others, and have led people to believe I am an enemy of people of color, and I am deeply sorry,” Bernard said in a written statement issued Friday afternoon. “I condemn racial injustice in any form. I promise to be part of the solution and to listen to the concerns of all members of our community. I stand with you, in love and respect.”

All four African-American board members spoke in favor of changing the school’s name.

“We need to take care of it now,” board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson said. “It’s an urgent matter. It’s not just here in Baton Rouge. It’s long, long, long overdue.”

The renewed push to rename Lee High landed key support Wednesday when the Baton Rouge Area Chamber announced its support, describing it “as the right thing to do.” Several prominent education groups have likewise launched an online petition seeking to rename the high school. On Thursday, the Baton Rouge NAACP revived the call it made in 2016 to rename the school, saying it’s “well overdue.”

Also, the nonprofit, New Schools for Baton Rouge, has offered to pay for replacing the exterior signage of Lee High.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com.