Freedom High School senior Fatmata Mansaray says she’s glad she decided to speak up about the challenges she and a friend faced at school when they wore their Muslim head coverings, or hijabs.
“Honestly, I didn’t do it for me,” said Mansaray, an 18-year-old senior. “Hajah and I decided we needed to stand up for them.”
By “them,” Mansaray is referring to younger Muslim girls enrolled in Prince William County public schools, as well as other schools in the region, who might face fewer challenges at school when they decide to wear their hijabs because the girls told their story.
Prince William County school officials released a statement offering regrets Friday after Freedom High School administrators were found to have required Mansaray and Hajah Bah, a fellow Freedom student and close family friend, to carry notes from their parents as “proof” they wore their head scarves for religious reasons.
The situation came to a head last Thursday, June 1, when both girls were stopped in the courtyard and asked to show their notes. Mansaray was carrying hers that day but Bah was not, Mansaray said. When the assistant principal told the girls Bah would have to take off her hijab or go home, Mansaray decided to speak up for her friend.
“I said it’s Ramadan and we’re fasting and she’s not going to take off her hijab,” Mansaray said.
Soon, the girls found themselves in an administrator’s office. Mansaray said she was told she might get a “referral” – or face disciplinary action – for being disrespectful. Mansaray said her mother came to school to talk to school administrators and eventually took both girls home. Mansaray never got the referral, but they were too upset to stay at school, Mansaray said.
Later that night, Mansaray shared her story on Twitter and told of other students who were similarly confronted for wearing their hijabs, including one student who asked to leave a class picture because she was wearing her head covering. A few other students also left group photo shoot in solidarity.
“If I don’t speak this will continue to happen to us,” Mansaray wrote.
Things turned around quickly. School Board member Justin Wilk (Potomac) saw Mansaray’s tweet and contacted Prince William County middle school teacher Atif Qarni, who is himself a Muslim and who has intervened in the past on behalf of Muslim students who have felt misunderstood or mistreated for their religious customs.
Qarni said a school division assistant superintendent quickly responded Friday by contacting Freedom High School administrators. The school division’s dress code prohibits students from wearing hats and other head gear in school buildings but makes exceptions for religious head coverings.
Also on Friday, state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-29th, and Scott Surovell, D-36th, also wrote emails to school division leaders on the students’ behalf, Qarni said.
The incident was the second involving Muslim students in as many weeks. Battlefield High School issued a statement May 24 condemning an anti-Muslim tweet in which as student threatened a Muslim classmate. Police investigated the threat but did not press charges, Qarni said.
By Friday afternoon, the school division released a statement saying that requiring Muslim students to carry notes is “inconsistent with [the school division’s] commitment to diversity and religious freedom.”
“We apologize to anyone it may have offended,” the statement continued.
“This situation spotlights a regrettable inconsistency between our official policies and beliefs, and the reality of how things are sometimes done. That inconsistency will end. We are committed to using this incident as an opportunity to ensure that respect for diversity, religious freedom and self-expression are practiced and evident every day and at every school.”
Qarni said he was glad to see the school division address the situation but said he believes the incidents indicate a need for cultural awareness training for both students and staff.
On Sunday, Qarni used his Facebook page to thank school officials and school board members for taking quick action on the girls’ behalf, but he appealed to other teachers to support the idea of cultural awareness training perhaps as a substitute for parts of the professional development training already required of school staff, some of which he said is “highly ineffective.”
“If a solution comes in a form of cultural awareness training for teachers, administrators and students, we must not resist,” Qarni wrote. “Instead, we should guide the school board and the superintendent’s office to shape this learning to be productive and meaningful.”
For her part, Mansaray said she and Bah were encouraged by the support of their friends at Freedom High, many of whom arrived at school wearing hijabs to show their support.
“It was really good to see them do that,” she said.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org