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Mediator called in as durag dispute simmers at Edmonton school

17 December 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

A mediator is expected to help resolve a dispute as an Edmonton mother continues to demand a personal apology from the Edmonton Catholic School District, alleging racism against her 11-year-old for wearing a red durag head covering.

“The only thing that has been ignored time and time again is an apology, for you to sincerely say you’re sorry,” Una Momulu told school trustees Dec. 16 at a meeting packed with about 90 of her supporters waving signs and chanting “Black lives matter!”

“I believe that we will get some progress with this. I think it creates that opening dialogue for everyone to have this discussion that is well needed during this time,” she said.

“From Day 1, all I wanted was an apology. An apology is important because it acknowledges the wrongdoing in all of the events that took place in the past few months.”

Emmell Summerville is seen wearing a durag

On Sept. 12, Momulu’s son Emmell, a Grade 6 student at Christ the King Elementary/Junior High School, was asked to remove his red durag, since it violated a school policy prohibiting head coverings. A school resource officer warned him that the red durag was worn by members of a city gang. However, Momolu alleges that he was accused of being involved in a gang and racially profiled because of his durag, considered a symbol of black culture.

The mother was banned from Christ The King school for one year after she allegedly became aggressive and police were called.

The issue came to a head at a Dec. 16 meeting of Momulu, Edmonton Catholic Schools senior staff, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange — herself a former Catholic school trustee — and her deputy minister.

Edmonton Catholic School Division Statement

In a statement, the Edmonton Catholic School Division apologized for the gang reference and partially lifted a ban against her, allowing her to pick up and drop off family members and to attend events. However, she is still not allowed to enter school property.

The division says the board’s student voice committee began a review this fall of the dress code and a third-party mediator will help both sides work out outstanding issues at a future meeting. Provincially, the education minister also pledged to examine further cultural awareness and diversity for students and staff.

About 90 supporters packed the Edmonton Catholic school board meeting Dec. 17.

“We trust that Ms. Momolu understands and appreciates that it has never been our desire that this matter escalate to the point we are at today,” the ECSD said in a statement that would be their only comment on the matter.

“When we previously apologized publicly for using the word ‘gang’, we had hoped to convey to Ms. Momolu and her son that there was no intent to connect her son’s race or his choice to wear a durag with his membership in a gang; the intention was only to inform Ms. Momolu and her son of a community reality which may have put her son at risk.  We are sorry that throughout this matter, she interpreted our intentions differently and that our conduct was racially motivated; that is simply not who we are.”

Nevertheless, Momulu said she wants the division to personally apologize to her and her son, who now attends a different Edmonton Catholic school in the city. She declined to name the school, but said he pays $1 to wear his durag as part of a ‘break-a-rule for charity’ provision at his school.

Over the past three months, there has been also a 3,000-name petition calling for a direct apology to Momulu, and her primary supporter — activist Bashir Mohamed — has been threatened with legal action.

Una Momulu, and activist Bashir Mohamed, address reporters after meeting with school trustees.

Momulu said the entire durag dispute is not particular to the Catholic school system, but is symptomatic of a larger problem of discrimination in Canada.

“This is not just a Catholic school system problem. It’s an institutionalized problem. If it was public school or Catholic school, it doesn’t matter. Racism, we need to fight against that,” she said. “It is time to acknowledge that this entire incident has to do with race from the very beginning. We have to continue to have this conversation to bring about change.”

At the Dec. 16 meeting, Edmonton Catholic school trustees also approved a new fee schedule for student transportation to help offset a projected $4.6-million deficit. The division will not lay off staff, but will reduce other expenditures.

Student Transportation Fee Schedule (effective February 1, 2020)

As of Feb. 1, 2020, the new fee schedule reinstates transportation fees for students within 2.4 kilometres or more from their designated school. The School Fee Reduction grant was discontinued in the Oct. 24 provincial budget, meaning a $2.7-million reduction in funding. Kindergarten students will now be required to pay a monthly transportation fee.

Edmonton Catholic Schools says it has 27 shared bus routes with its public counterpart, which have resulted in approximately $1.8 million savings in operational costs.

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