NORWALK, Conn. — More than a dozen Norwalk residents, as well as community members who work in the city, called on the Board of Education to begin the process of changing the name of Columbus Magnet School.
“Over the past eight years, I’ve been a part of the Columbus Magnet School family and tonight I’m here speaking as a Columbus Magnet School mom and as a multiracial woman with Indigenous roots,” Sharon Baanante said. “I’m here to ask for your support in changing the name of Columbus Magnet School.”
Juliette Ochoa-Vanegas, a student at Sacred Heart University, Norwalk resident, and a graduate of Columbus Magnet School, said that one of her favorite memories at Columbus Magnet School was the cultural fair, which highlighted students’ traditions, music, dance, art, and food. Ochoa-Vanegas said that image of diversity didn’t match the name of the school.
“It is vital that the Board of Education recognized Hispanic Heritage Month,” she said. Columbus Magnet and the Norwalk Public School system fosters the minds of so many young and impressionable black and brown children. With that being said, I urge you to change the name of the school now more than ever, Christopher Columbus colonized and committed atrocities on different lands, lands where many students are from.”
Many of the speakers said that they weren’t aiming to rewrite or erase history, but rather put it in the proper context.
“The name of Columbus Magnet School is a daily reminder to many of us of a false narrative that has been silently and willfully ignored by an educational institution for 82 years,” Baanante said. “Many will say that we want to erase history, I say that we only want to tell the story the way it should be told.”
Alejando Vasquez, a freshman at American University, who went through the Norwalk Public School system, including Columbus Magnet School, said he was involved in a petition to remove the statue from Heritage Park that was done earlier this summer.
Vasquez said the next step should be to get “rid of Columbus Magnet school name and change it to something that’s equitable and fair for everyone that attends it, because it’s a majority BIPOC school.”
Matthew Danzer, a current resident of Fairfield, who formerly lived in Norwalk and currently volunteers with the Norwalk Immigration Coalition, said the school system shouldn’t glorify someone who committed atrocities.
“While our schools should continue to teach Columbus’s historical contributions, the good, the bad and the ugly, we should find a better use for the names of our schools than to raise up such a figure,” he said. “The school’s name must be changed to respect those in the community for whom the name brings great pain and to recognize values.”
Farah Marin, a resident of Norwalk, said that students at Columbus Magnet are taught conflicting lessons as they see the diversity of students at the school, but also must grapple with the name.
“So what does it mean when your community is named after a man who caused harm and tried to eradicate the native people from the very land you’re standing on today?” she said. “What does it mean when your school is diverse and multicultural but is named after a white supremacist? It means that early on, students are given two conflicting messages—one that you’re valued and two, that a man that hated brown folks represents your school…It is time to show our students that Norwalk values diversity and the Indigenous and Latinx community are important. It is time to change the name of Columbus Magnet School.
Board President Sarah LeMieux said that the Board of Education had already indicated that it would support the Columbus school community to begin the process of a name change.
“I should say that the board has already expressed support for the Columbus community to begin the process of changing the name. So we are very much on the same page. It’s the time to examine this and have the CMS community begin the process of choosing a name for themselves.”
LeMieux and Columbus Magnet School Principal Medard Thomas said that the first step is discussing it with the Columbus School Governance Council.
“There’s a procedure for names to be changed by schools in the district and the school governance council, asks the Board for support and the Board says, ‘yes, we will support you,’” she said. “So that’s the procedure that has to be initiated.”
Thomas said that his attention and priority have been on reopening the school safely for students and staff, but that the discussion surrounding the name would begin with a School Governance Council meeting on Oct. 27.
Mayor Harry Rilling, who was in attendance at the meeting, said that legal counsel may have be to be brought in for the name to be changed.
“We would need also to bring in legal counsel for how the process for any potential name change must take place, so obviously that is the city building and the city has to have a process in place for any potential name change that may be recommended,” he said.