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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Reviewing the saga of Vang Pao Elementary School in Madison
Reaction to arrest developing online
Vang Pao
Vang Pao
Credit:St. Paul Public Schools

Word of the arrest and charging of Vang Pao in California for plotting a coup against the government of Laos swifly brought the naming of a school on Madison's southwest side back into question at the Madison school board meeting on Monday night. School board members commented that they would consider reversing their April 9 decision to name the school after Pao, who is iconic in the Hmong community both in Madison and around the world for his opposition to communists through the Vietnam War.

The naming of the school, which broke ground for construction in late May, was controversial from the start. UW history professor Alfred McCoy, who had written about Pao's involvement during the conflict including charges of war crimes and drug trafficking, quickly became a primary voice against the decision by the school board.

Their decision came five years after the Madison Parks Commission rejected a similar proposal to name a city park after Pao, which was similarly criticized by McCoy. One of the other men arrested in California was Locha Thao, a onetime parks commission member who suggested the naming and worked as an aide to former Wisconsin state senator Gary George during the 2002 nominations papers scandal that followed his primary candidacy for governor.

Isthmus and The Daily Page have followed the controversy over the naming since it started in mid-April. A review of the coverage -- which includes many of the specific allegations made by McCoy and the responses in the Hmong community and by Madisonians opposed to the naming -- follows.

The arrest of Pao is also drawing comment from bloggers around Madison.

  • WTDY station manager Glen Gardner recalled his opposition to the naming of the school, and noted that the station would be hosting Alfred McCoy as a guest on Tuesday morning. "We'll be talking about this A LOT Tuesday morning," Garner promises.
  • A "soon-to-be-law student" at the UW Law School notes this "wild turn" in the school naming saga, reviewing the original decision made by the school board and the charges levied by McCoy. He concludes:
    Now, with the news that Pao continues to attempt to end the Communist regime in Laos, his name needs to be removed from the school. There are many great Hmong leaders out there that are just as deserving of the honor and recognition as Pao, and with less baggage. Two possibilities include: Pa Kao Her (leader of the Hmong Chao Fa movement) or Touby Lyfoung (Hmong political and military leader). The list of charges against Pao have just become to overwhelming to ethically name a school after him. He may be a great leader to the Hmong community, but he is not the best role model for school children to follow. Stick with the choice of a Hmong name for the school, but choose a better candidate, one better suited to represent the Hmong people.
  • UW law school professor Ann Althouse similarly noted the arrest, and criticized school board president Arlene Silveira for her reaction to word of the arrest.
  • Former Madison mayor Paul Soglin also criticizes the original naming of the school. He concludes:
    There is no question that Vang Pao was an important force in combating Communist oppression. There is no question that his military leadership delayed the Communist take over of Laos and led to many thousands of families making their way to the Untied States. But that is not his entire record. There are many heroes with checkered and imperfect pasts. There is a balancing that must be achieved in recognizing their achievements. A school named after Vang Pao does not pass any test.

More comments about the naming of Vang Pao Elementary School may be found on TDPF, including a list of 41 potential names issued by Silveira on March 1, the initial announcement of the naming by former board president Johnny Winston, Jr., along with discussions to be found here and here. Additionally, a copy of the U.S. Department of Justice indictment against Pao is available in the related downloads at right.

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