COBB COUNTY, Ga. (CW69 News at 10) — A group of students at Joseph Wheeler High School in Cobb County launched the Wheeler Name Change Initiative in August 2020. They say the Confederate leader’s name is a symbol of racial oppression, so they want the school renamed. “It really just symbolizes the Confederacy, which at the very least, symbolized division and hate,” said Nina Kesava, a member of group. “We all acknowledged this is something we would need to work on together,” said Sydney Spessard, another member.

The effort comes as districts across the country, including Atlanta Public Schools, have renamed schools that were named after Confederate leaders. The Cobb County School Board declined to put the issue on the meeting agenda three times, so the students got creative and delivered an elaborate and historical presentation during the public comment part of last week’s school board meeting. “We decided that we would send all 15 people to take up the full 30 minute segment and present our research,” said another member, Jake McGhee. “We didn’t highlight just the negative things. We also talked about his life afterwards, when he served in the Army.”

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Several students mentioned the school was named after a Confederate general long after the Civil War. “It was named in the ’60’s in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement,” McGhee said. They also argued the name doesn’t meet the guidelines of the county’s naming policy, which indicates the person must have made a significant contribution to the community.

Those who oppose the change say removing Confederate names and symbols is an attempt to erase history. “Everybody knows the Confederacy was wrong, but Joseph Wheeler was a United States general,” said Stephen Martiny, who graduated from the school in 1981 and spoke at a March school board meeting. “It is wrong to judge people on slices of their résumé.” Those who support the change say those names and symbols belong in museums. “You can go on and on and debate his life, the good things, the bad things, the negatives, and we’re not attacking him personally,” said Kesava. “This is more to do with the symbol more than him as a person.”

The group has shared their message on social media, and a petition started by a different group called Wildcats for Change has more than 5,000 signatures. “They may think that we’re going to go away, but we’re going to be continuing to work in this. We’re not gonna stop,” said McGhee. “We’re excited to continue to keep exploring our opportunities and ways that we can expand our initiative,” Spessard said.

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They say they’ve received little to no response from the board, with one exception. “We’ve gotten pretty consistent response from our board member, Ms. Charisse Davis,” Kesava added.  Davis asked them to request it be added to the school board agenda, which they did.  The school board denied the request.

A district spokesperson issued the following statement in an email, “As a District, we are focused on teaching and learning while our Board is committed to hearing from all voices in the community.”

Board members did not immediately respond to CW69’s request for comment.

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Currently, more than 60% of Cobb County Schools’ students are minorities.