South Park Academy in the Utah State Prison has a new name
Principal Chris Sullivan proudly celebrated the June 5 high school graduation of his students at the Utah State Prison. Afterward, he looked at news articles covering the ceremony and wasn’t all that surprised by the comment sections.
Most were complimentary of the 38 inmates on the accomplishment of earning a diploma while incarcerated. But some made jokes about the program’s name, which is the same as an animated TV show about foul-mouthed fourth graders in Colorado.
Long before the TV show first aired, the high school for incarcerated adults has been known as South Park Academy.
But the Salt Lake City School Board voted on June 6 to change the name to Sky View Academy. The name is a reference to the wide-open spaces near the prison and the clear view of the skies.
“With the current school’s name, there are several references within pop culture which can be made that reinforce negative stereotypes of bad behavior and continue to stigmatize our students long after they pay their debt to society and re-enter their communities when they produce proof of graduation through transcripts or diplomas,” a proposal to the board reads.
Sullivan said his students are already a marginalized and underserved group. He doesn’t want them to go to job interviews after they’re released, hand over their resumes and hear jokes about where they got their education.
“There’s always going to be someone that probably has a snide little comment — trying to be funny, not trying to be mean,” Sullivan said. “We just really wanted to make sure we could take that away and give them something to be a little bit more proud of.”
Utah Prisoner Advocate Network director and co-founder Molly Prince said it’s unfortunate that people have made jokes about the name of the school because the program has been helping incarcerated Utahns graduate from high school for decades.
“I think if changing the name will help them and remove any stigma associated with the unfortunate association with the TV series, then I would support the name change,” Prince said.
It was a fitting time for a change and a fresh start, Sullivan said. All the incarcerated individuals at Utah State Prison moved from Draper, where the prison was housed for about 70 years, to a new facility in Salt Lake City last summer.
This meant the school was in a new building and a new district, the Salt Lake City School District. It first started in the Jordan School District in 1955 and moved to the Canyons School District in 2009 when it was created.
“With it originally being out there in their south mountain, we understand that South Park was a good name for it back then,” Sullivan said. “Nothing against Jordan or Canyons, or anything like that. It’s just a new facility and, you know, there’s that new life and the students kind of feel it.”
Discussions about changing the name started before the new state prison opened and Sullivan wanted to make sure students were involved. About 67% of students enrolled in the program participated in a survey. South Park Academy staff and correctional officers also participated.
Sullivan told the students that this was their chance to change things not just for themselves, but for future generations.
Sullivan wasn’t sure if South Park Academy ever had a mascot, but the students and staff decided that “the eagles” would be their mascot. The eagle symbolizes “honesty, strength, wisdom, freedom and acknowledges the United States of America,” according to the proposal.
Now that they have a mascot, Sullivan said he is excited to talk with students about the core values of the school.
“What is a Sky View eagle and what does that entail? And how are we going to make this part of future generations and what they can buy into? As much as I don’t want to make a separation from the correctional facility, I do want to make it where this is a different space and a safe space for those folks to come here.”
Since the school is still inside the Utah State Prison, the name change will mostly affect databases and paperwork. But Sullivan hopes that having students decide the name, mascot and school colors will give them more pride in their education and show they do have a voice even in prison, where they often don’t.
“If we can give them a little bit of a break from that and give them that idea that they are important and they should have a say in what they do, then I'm all for that.”.