Board of Education President Matt Haney struck a nerve across the nation this week when he suggested that public schools in San Francisco drop the names of slave owners like George Washington, the first president of the United States.
But after his suggestion was misinterpreted in national media and online as a plan to rebrand San Francisco schools with questionable namesakes in one fell swoop, Haney said he might hold off on introducing a resolution related to his suggestion until school communities have a chance to debrief the issue.
Instead, the Board of Education should continue to focus on pertinent issues like finding a new superintendent and closing the opportunity gap within the San Francisco Unified School District, Haney said.
“The intention was not to attack the Founding Fathers or suggest that they had not made contributions to the country,” said Haney, who is running for re-election to the school board in November. “To the extent that people received it that way, I apologize.”
The resolution would have only clarified the school district’s policies allowing school communities to recommend name changes to the Board of Education, as well as shown the school board’s willingness to change names that do not match their communities.
“My intention was always just to create a space for conversation,” Haney said. “To let school communities know that this option is available and to encourage school communities that want to explore a name that they have pride and value in, to do so.”
For instance, schools might want to choose a new moniker if they are named after slave owners, misogynists, conquerors or others with questionable histories.
Washington High School was just one example Haney presented as a possible candidate, suggesting that it be renamed after notable poet and author Maya Angelou, who attended the school. She wrote about her early life there in her 1969 autobiography, “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“Some people maybe twisted it to make it seem as though this was going to be a heavy-handed, sweeping change without any input or contribution for the community, when actually the goal was to the contrary,” Haney said.
On Fox News, for instance, Bill O’Reilly portrayed the issue Wednesday night as though the school board was considering removing Washington’s name off of the high school — which is not the case — and framed it as a politically correct move.
“Maya Angelou was a patriot who did a lot of good, but George Washington is a towering historical figure,” O’Reilly said.
Haney said he has received a considerable amount of hate mail and even a threat of violence as a result of his suggestion, which was posted on social media Sunday night and first reported in the San Francisco Examiner.
On Thursday morning, Haney was notified of a possible death threat left for him at George Washington Elementary School in Daly City. While not the school at the center of the controversy — that one is in San Francisco’s Richmond District — Haney said the Daly City Police Department is investigating the threat.
“That’s scary, and I think there’s a level of rhetoric around this and it’s been a little scary and surprising,” Haney said, noting that he will not be backing down from his initial suggestion if the Washington High School community is also supportive of a name change.
A spokesperson for the police department was not immediately available to verify the threat.