Junction City High School Sophomore Patience Okemba has come forward about what happened Oct. 20, during an incident where she was questioned by a JCHS hall monitor and JCHS Principal Melissa Sharp about her hijab, saying her only desire is to practice her religion in peace. The incident would culminate in Sharp’s suspension with pay.
“My goal was never to get Mrs. Sharp or anyone in trouble, get suspended or any further action,” Okemba, in a written statement to the Junction City Union Monday evening. “All I wanted is to protect my right to practice my religion freely — without interference from anyone — and to make sure that no one experiences the humiliation and bad feelings I had that day.”
Okemba, speaking publicly for the first time, said the incident happened when a hall monitor told her “to take her scarf off” her head while walking to her fourth period class after lunch.
“Feeling surprised, I said, ‘Excuse me?’ and she repeated, ‘You need to take that off,” Okemba said. “I was alarmed, and when I said I cannot do that, she asked me, ‘Why.’”
Okemba said he she told the monitor that she would explain, just not in front of others.
“She asked, ‘Do you have a medical issue?’ to which I answered, ‘No,’” Okemba said. “She further asked, ‘Then why are you wearing it?’ And I said to express modesty per my religion. That is when she told me that I had to go see Mrs. Sharp.”
The article the hall monitor had taken for a scarf was actually a hijab. A hijab is a head covering scarf that some Muslim women wear in public. For many such women, the hijab signifies both modesty and privacy. In some cases, the hijab is worm by a woman when she’s with men who aren’t in her own family.
While in the office, Okemba met with Sharp, after Sharp had been informed the student did not have a medical reason for wearing the article of clothing.
“Mrs. Sharp asked me if it is for religious reason, and I said yes,” Okemba said. “Mrs. Sharp then told me that I need "documentation" and took me to the academy principal's office. (There Rebecca) Hickert told me that I needed to write a statement by the end of the day about what the hijab is and why I am wearing it.”
In an email sent out by Sharp the following day — after a student led protest that morning — she stated “At no time over the last two days (or ever) was any student asked to remove a hijab from their head.” She continued by writing, “At no time over the course of this incident has any student been asked to ‘write an essay’ or ‘defend their religion.’ The communication that was asked of the student (and the family) was to help the respective administrator communicate the needs of the student to impacted parties.”
Okemba said she was called back into the office, which concerned some of her classmates.
“When I told them, they were upset and said I should not have to write or submit a statement,” she said.
The following morning, a large group of students who used social media to pass onto others what had transpired, protested in the high school parking lot demanding change.
That support reassured her, Okemba said.
“When the issue started with stopping me in the hallway, I was uncomfortable and felt humiliated,” she said. “But, the encouragement of my classmates and their action the next day made me feel support and reduced my discomfort or confusion about being treated this way — for no other reason than trying to follow my religious beliefs. I fully appreciate the solidarity and support I received from my fellow students.”
Two days later, the Geary County Schools Unified School District 475 board of education held the first of two special meetings in executive session to discuss the incident and how to move forward.
“It was very comforting to know that the district board of education is taking the issue seriously and looking into it,” Okemba said about learning of the meetings and investigation. “But, (I) was not sure if this would result in any real outcome, or was just a reaction to the student protest and the comments by a national organization — The Council on American Islamic Relations-Kansas Chapter — and the media attention that this incident generated. So, I had to wait and see what [would] come out of it.”
During the Nov. 2 board of education meeting held at the Mary Devin Center, the board voted unanimously to suspend Sharp with pay for the remainder of the school year.
“The board of education has thoroughly reviewed the results of an investigation concerning the incident at Junction City High School,” said board president Rina Neal. “An acting principal will be appointed at the high school. We will use this as an opportunity to rededicate our efforts to create an inclusive environment for all. We appreciate your support of our students and school district.”
Dr. Reginald Eggleston, USD 475 superintendent said that timeframe allowed the board “ample time to make any further decisions.”
“And at this present moment, consensus was given that that was just the best move to make — under all the circumstances that are before us,” he said.
Moving forward, Okemba hopes no one has to endure this type of humiliation or questions about their religious practices.
“I believe that a lot of the problems related to racial, religious or ethnic difference that happen in our society come from ignorance or lack of familiarity,” she said. “If we all, as a community, try to get to know each other as (an) individual and have acceptance and mutual respect for these types of differences — we can avoid all these problems and become a better society and a welcoming place for everybody. I wish there were more opportunities in our local community for events that introduce different cultures and exposes people to others from different backgrounds, in order to bring us together and allow understanding.”