A group of Rockville parents is urging Montgomery County education leaders to name a new elementary school after a figure in the LGBT community, in what they say would be a first for the county.
On Monday, the school board appeared to be taking notice by suggesting Bayard Rustin, a prominent civil rights and gay rights activist, as one of the possible names for the school opening in September. Mark Eckstein Bernardo, a gay father whose twins will attend the new school at 332 W. Edmonston Drive, said the naming offers an opportunity for greater inclusion of students from LGBT families.
“They want to see themselves represented when they walk into their school and look up and see the name of the school on the front of the building,” said Bernardo, who spoke during Monday’s meeting at Montgomery County Public Schools headquarters in Rockville.
A group of about 12 families in the attendance area for the new school have been working together to come up with names of distinguished people who were openly gay or supportive of the LGBT community, Bernardo said. He said several months ago, when he first became interested in the issue, he started looking for schools named after prominent, openly gay people. He was shocked to discover he couldn’t find any examples in the county.
MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said Tuesday he didn’t have any information to contradict Bernardo’s assertion.
Bernardo noted that MCPS has designated schools in honor of astronaut Sally Ride, who was gay, and poet Walt Whitman, who is believed to have been gay. But these figures weren’t public about their sexual identities while they lived, he said.
Rustin, on the other hand, was an outspoken advocate for gay rights and was jailed in the 1950s because of his sexual orientation. Rustin was also known as a close adviser to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and helped coordinate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
Honoring Rustin’s bravery would send a subtle message of acceptance to young students, at an age when they’re in the midst of forming their gender identities, Bernardo said.
His husband, Lionel Sussman Bernardo, told the school board Monday that the move would come at a particularly significant moment.
“I know how powerful a school name can be to my kids who have seen the LGBT community under targeted attack in the past year,” Lionel Sussman Bernardo said.
During that time, President Donald Trump has attempted to bar transgender individuals from military service, and the Department of Education recently announced it would no longer investigate civil rights complaints from transgender students who don’t have access to bathrooms matching their gender identity.
School board member Rebecca Smondrowski, whose district covers the city of Rockville, said she appreciated the parents’ effort to shed light on the issue.
“I think it’s important that the names of our schools are reflective of the history and the people of Montgomery County,” she said. “We’re a very diverse county, and we try to be very respectful of people’s differences. … All of our schools, whatever they’re called, whether they’re based on the area they’re located or a person of significance, should inspire positive feelings and respect for the community.”
Smondrowski said she supports all four names board members sent to the school naming committee, a group of community members that will rank the suggestions and may add their own.
In addition to Bayard Rustin, the board offered Mary McLeod Bethune, Emily Catherine Edmonson and Josiah Henson as potential titles for the school.
Bethune was an educator and activist who founded a private school for African-American students in Florida in the early 1900s, while Edmonson was a Montgomery County woman who worked as an abolitionist with Frederick Douglass. The Rev. Josiah Henson, who grew up enslaved at a Montgomery County plantation, penned an 1849 autobiography that inspired Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Smondrowski said the school board relies heavily on community input and the recommendation of the committee when selecting school names.
Bernardo said he’s a member of the naming committee, which is slated to meet over the next couple weeks. The school board is scheduled to consider the final list of options on April 12.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com.