In what was a surprise even to its members, the Lawrence school board voted unanimously Monday to change the name of South Middle School to honor Native Americans.
At the urging of a roomful of about 100 supporters of the name change, the board agreed to rename the school Billy Mills Middle School. The new name was a departure from the written recommendation on the issue provided to the board before the meeting, which stated "Billy Mills South Middle School" was the only name change proposed for the board’s consideration.
Jennifer Attocknie, district coordinator for Native American student services, said it was her mistake that the recommendation of "Billy Mills Middle School" was omitted in the report given to the board. She was sick when called about the recommendation, she said.
Attocknie headed a committee the board charged in November with recommending two name changes. One of the recommendations was supposed to include the name of an individual, and one a generic Native American reference.
The committee’s membership was open to all who wanted to participate, but did include South Middle School Principal Keith Jones and Carole Cadue-Blackwood, who started the discussion about the name change with a June 2017 letter to the district.
On Monday, Attocknie and Cadue-Blackwood told the board the committee rejected a generic Native American name at a December meeting because that instruction was viewed as “rooted in whiteness and colonial constructs,” which sees all tribes and Indian nations as a homogenous group.
Attocknie said the committee forwarded Billy Mills and Billy Mills South but was strongly recommending the former.
“The group came to the conclusion that to only have Billy Mills as the name strengthens the purpose of honoring a Native American person as a recognition of honoring indigenous people," she said. "It intentionally shares his story as an integral part of Lawrence’s history. Therefore, to have Billy Mills South lessens the intent of this action.”
Eleven speakers addressed the board to support the recommendation, citing Mills’ athletic accomplishments at Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas, his gold medal in the 10,000-meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and his current work on behalf of underprivileged children.
Although she supported the name change, board president Shannon Kimball said she still had reservations about naming district facilities for living people. She said the board also would be criticized for approving a name that wasn’t included in the board agenda documents available to the public online before the meeting, as some opposed to the change would see that as a move to silence debate at Monday’s meeting.
Kimball said the board did not handle the issue well because it responded to an unanticipated request without a policy of how facility names changes should be addressed. She vowed such a policy will now be developed.