Clothing worn on culture day at Halifax school causes controversy

There are 800 students from primary to Grade 9 attending Park West. (CBC - image credit)
There are 800 students from primary to Grade 9 attending Park West. (CBC - image credit)

Some family members at Park West School in Halifax along with local advocacy groups are planning protests after they say children were told they couldn't wear a traditional Palestinian scarf for the school's culture day.

The school principal and the Halifax Regional Centre for Education acknowledged there was an "incident" at the school, but have denied there is a ban on the keffiyeh.

Maamoud Alhindi, who has a daughter at the middle school, says his nephew was called to the principal's office on March 1 and was told to take off his keffiyeh because it was a "sign of war."

Alhindi said the Grade 7 student tried to explain the cultural significance of the black and white scarf, but eventually took it off and returned to class. Alhindi said other students had similar experiences that day.

He said the keffiyeh is a symbol of strength and resilience and he is looking for justice and wants an investigation into what happened.

"I don't feel safe that my daughter, my nephew, my other kids are ... around this kind of environment," Alhindi said. " This is not safe and not healthy for the kids."

Alhindi said his nephew has not returned to school since the day of the incident.

'Isolated incident'

On Friday afternoon, Park West School principal Benedette Anyanwu posted a message saying the school responded to an "isolated incident involving a few students."

"I have heard some believe the incident resulted in a widespread ban [of the keffiyeh]," Anyanwu  said. "I assure you that there are no bans on what students choose to wear to school."

She doesn't address the specifics of the incident but acknowledged that "the situation that evolved this week has caused harm."

"I sincerely apologize for the distress this has caused students, families, and our wider community," she said.

On Saturday, Steve Gallagher, HRCE's acting regional executive director, sent a message to family and staff reiterating that there was no "widespread ban" on the keffiyeh.

He said "concerns arose regarding specific students' action" on March 1 and the matter was discussed with students and family privately.

"On behalf of HRCE, I am deeply sorry for any harm this situation has caused the Palestinian community and others who have been impacted," Gallagher said.

'More work to be done'

Gallagher said the situation signals that "there is more work to be done within our system to build trust and acceptance."

He said members of a diversity team will be at the school Monday to work with staff and students.

Lana Khammish, president of the Atlantic Canada Palestinian society, said despite school officials categorizing the incident as a misunderstanding or miscommunication, students and parents say it happened.

Khammish says an investigation is required and the society is calling for training programs for educators, staff and children on anti-Palestinian racism.

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education declined an interview request.