A dispute over a student’s head covering at an Edmonton Catholic school has led to an apology from the school division, but his mother remains unsatisfied and has rallied supporters to back her allegations of racism at the school.
Emmell Summerville, a Grade 6 student at Christ the King Elementary/Junior High School, was asked to remove his red durag on Sept. 12. His mother, Una Momolu, alleges that he was also accused of being involved in a gang, while the school division says the durag simply violated the school’s no-hat policy. However, a school resource officer apparently did warn him that the red durag is worn by members of a gang known to police.
“We want to start by recognizing and apologizing for the use of the word ‘gang’ with regards to this situation,” Edmonton Catholic Schools said in a statement October 17, issued hours before Momulu and about 70 supporters rallied outside the division offices. “It was never our intent to suggest that the boy had any affiliation with a gang.”
Momolu said her son won’t attend classes at Christ the King unless she receives a direct apology from ECSD and the no-hat policy is relaxed to allow for durags. She also wants the division to rescind a decision to ban her from the school property, imposed after a heated meeting with the school principal earlier this month.
She believes the school staff don’t respect the cultural significance of a durag.
“The durag is a spiritual symbol of black culture,” Momulu said. “This is what slave women wore to have confidence in themselves. It has always been a spiritual part of us from then until now. A head garment is something we hold dear. They need to apologize for their dishonesty and the rules need to change, because the durag is targeting a specific group of students. It’s just dark-skinned kids.”
Momolu also disputes ECSD’s statement about her “aggressive behaviour” at the meeting with the principal, and she called for the school division to release security video footage.
“I don’t trust them with my son’s care and I don’t trust the administration,” she said.
ECSD said it stands behind both the no-hat policy and the decision to ban the mother. Momulu’s meeting with school officials became so heated that police were called to escort her off the property.
The division statement said “the conduct of the mother escalated and our surveillance shows her acting aggressively towards staff and the police when they arrived. School staff can be seen crying and reported fearing for their safety. Police have also confirmed the mother’s aggressive behaviour to media. The Division stands by the decision to ban the mother from the school for the remainder of the school year. The issue of race had no bearing on this action being taken and was never part of the discussion.”
Momulu had released to media a 10-minute segment of a recording of that meeting, which the division said “does not capture the entire conversation that took place.”
In the Alberta Legislative Assembly, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, herself a former Catholic school trustee, called for a full report into the incident.
“People feeling discriminated against based on their race is absolutely unacceptable,” she said after the issue was raised in Question Period.
The ECSD statement stressed that the ban applied only to the mother. “The student was never part of this ban and his regular attendance has been expected.” It also said Emmell’s father fully supports the school’s handling of the incident, but he could not be reached for comment.
Othieno Bey, a fashion designer who is a friend and supporter of Momulu, said durags have practical applications. “I wear durags when I have a decent hair flow, to avoid dryness in my scalp and my hair,” he said. “It’s also used for fashion. I know people who wear durags to get waves in their hair. But if you just watch Hollywood movies, you might think it’s something only worn by gangsters.”
At the rally, Emmell said he hopes the school division relaxes its policy on durags, but he does not want to return to Christ the King School under the current administration.
“The message I hope people get out of tonight is that racism should end. It feels really good that people actually care about this issue.”
Emmell’s father is Catholic, but Momolu is considering enrolling her son in a public school.
If the issues with the division remain unresolved, Momolu and her supporters say they will take further action ̶ including organizing another rally.