Federal Way school board votes to rename local middle school

District must remove “inappropriate” Native American symbolism from two more middle school mascots per state law.

A local school has been renamed as Evergreen Middle School in accordance with state law to remove inappropriate use of Native American symbolism from the Federal Way school district.

The Federal Way Public Schools Board of Directors voted on Nov. 9 to change the name of the former Totem Middle School, located at 26630 40th Ave. S. in Kent, and its previous mascot of the “Thunderbirds.”

“We are proud to move forward with this new name in an effort to help undo the disrespectful use and cultural appropriation of Native American identity in our community,” the district wrote in a statement.

Built in 1963, the school is nearing completion of a full rebuild and is set to re-open to students in January 2022.

The school renaming process was sparked by House Bill 1356, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on April 26, which prohibits “inappropriate use of Native American names, symbols, or images as public school mascots, logos, or team names,” according to the bill.

The name “Evergreen Middle School” was suggested by a student, according to the district, though input was received by teachers, community members and local tribal leaders via a School Renaming Committee.

Over 430 name suggestions were submitted, which were then narrowed down by the committee to the top 14 names. About 508 people voted in the second round, narrowing the list to the final three names for students to vote on.

Students voted for Evergreen, West Hill and Steel Lake as their first, second and third choices, respectively. Honoring student voices, Superintendent Dr. Dani Pfeiffer brought the students’ top choice as her final recommendation for the board’s approval.

The district is hosting a renaming celebration and healing ceremony Dec. 10 at Evergreen Middle School. The event is open to the public and more details will be shared closer to the celebration.

In January, the newly built school reopens to students, along with a new name and a new mascot, which will also be nominated by students.

Throughout the Puget Sound region, there are several similarly named schools including Evergreen Middle School in both Redmond and Everett, Evergreen Elementary School in Spanaway, and Evergreen High School in White Center.

In Federal Way, three other middle schools use Native American imagery and will undergo a similar new mascot process: the Illahee Braves, Sacajawea Warriors and Woodmont K-8 Thunderbirds.

Thomas Jefferson’s name change

Students present and past, and community members, have also raised issue with the name of Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn.

Those supporting a name change of Thomas Jefferson High School say the current name glorifies a former slave owner and is a “symbol of white supremacy,” according to the petition to change the school’s name.

A group of Thomas Jefferson students, some of whom graduated last spring, are advocating for a name change through the high school’s Unified People club. Five members spoke with the Mirror in May as discussions of Federal Way school name changes started bubbling up.

They previously earned endorsements from school leaders and state representatives, but still felt there was an overall feeling of apathy and reluctance among the community fueled by their own memories with the school.

“That was shocking because the reasons as to why we want to change the name kind of trump that,” said Carmen Argueta Bernal, a senior. “Memories will never leave you, but to change [the name] would be to create a safer, more inclusive environment.”

Resistance has come from community members who say they should worry about bigger issues in the schools.

“These small things, in theory, they should be so easy to change so that we can move forward to create bigger changes in the community,” said Paulina Laris, a graduated senior. “Yet we’re struggling to change something as simple as a name.”

For students of color attending the high school, some feel there is shame in mentioning the school’s current name, said senior Yasmin Mustefa.

“When I think of the name of our high school, I feel disrespected as a young Black woman,” she said, adding that this is because of the “harmful actions [he] committed to people who look like me and other races.”

The right side of history, they say, is siding with students and people of color who feel harmed by the name, rather than arguing to maintain a representation of oppression.

Maria Argueta Bernal, who graduated last year, is a Latinx woman and the daughter of immigrants. She said “as people of color, we don’t feel respected with the name of a person who didn’t respect our existence.”

Though Federal Way Public Schools has anti-racist policies in place, she said, “how anti-racist are you if the very name, the first thing you hear about a school, is extremely racist?”

The Federal Way school district’s focus is on HB 1356, said Whitney Chiang, chief of communications for the district. Any future naming of schools would be aligned with board policy and follow a similar process grounded in stakeholder voice, she added.