Tue | Sep 19, 2017

The head girl, Jehovah and Satan

Published:Monday | October 12, 2015 | 10:20 AMMichael Abrahams

The recent selection and subsequent deselection of a head girl at St Hilda’s High School, after the discovery of a possible Jehovah’s Witness affiliation, has created a firestorm.

Accusations of religious discrimination are being hurled at the school, which is operated by the Anglican Diocese of Jamaica, with calls for intervention by the Ministry of Education and Office of the Public Defender.

There is the temptation to take sides and jump on bandwagons, one which I began to entertain, and almost succumbed to, before remembering that there are multiple angles to probably every story.  

I therefore embarked on a mission to engage the main players in this drama. The young lady at the centre of the controversy, Jade Bascoe, graciously granted me audience and spoke confidently, but respectfully, about her ordeal. 

Her track record as a student is exemplary. She was form captain in first form, elected to the student council in second form, form captain again in third and fourth forms, and was appointed house captain at the end of the last school year.

She is also the head coordinator of the CMAT Club (an arts club), vice-president of the journalism and debate club, and secretary of the 4-H club. So it was a no-brainer to appoint her head girl for the academic year 2015-2016. The motto of the school is ‘Res Severa Verum Gaudium’, which translates to ‘hard work brings true joy’.

Unfortunately, Jade’s joy was short-lived. On the day following her appointment, she offered the vote of thanks following devotion, which was led by her guidance counsellor, who also happens to be an Anglican cleric.  Jade informed me that she expressed her appreciation for Jesus Christ by asking, “Can you believe that the existence of one man can give so much comfort?”, and then thanked the guidance counsellor and “Jehovah”.

Apparently, by saying the word “Jehovah”, she outed herself as someone who may have some affiliation with the Jehovah’s Witness organisation, as after devotion, while in mathematics class, the year coordinator summoned her and directed her to the principal’s office.

According to Jade, while in the office, the principal, Mrs Heather Reid Johnson, asked her which religious denomination she belonged to, and she informed her that she did not belong to any.

The principal then informed her that “Jehovah’s Witness” was written by her mother on documents submitted to the school at the time of her admission there in first form.

Jade expressed surprise at this, saying that she has visited the Kingdom Hall, but is not a baptised Jehovah’s Witness, and added that she was, at this point in her life, pondering the direction of her spiritual path.

She was then asked if she would be willing to perform certain duties, including reading the Bible at the school and thanking a priest at an upcoming event, and she answered all in the affirmative, after carefully listening to, and processing, the questions being posed. Her mother admitted to me that she declared her child’s denomination as Jehovah’s Witness four years ago, not to be deceptive, but because that was the faith that she was most closely affiliated with at the time. 

Jade reiterated to me that she is not a Jehovah’s Witness and that she has not visited the Kingdom Hall in about two years.

She said that she has sung the school hymn and the national anthem, has read the Bible at Anglican funerals, has taken part in Christmas productions at the school (including dancing in one), has attended and even organised birthday parties, including one at her home for her best friend and one for her form teacher last year, and is also a fan of Father Ho Lung's annual concerts, attending more than once with the principal present.

Jehovah’s Witness doctrine strongly forbids participation in any of the abovementioned activities. Apparently, the principal still had reservations about Jade, and the following day, she let her know that regarding the head girl post, it was “not going to happen”, because of her “orientation”. The child was also stripped of her house captain post. The principal related a similar story regarding the meeting with Jade, admitting that at no point did she refuse to perform any of her required duties, but stated that the manner in which she responded to the questions, especially her “pregnant pauses”, led her to believe that she was uncomfortable or conflicted regarding what was expected of her in her new role. 

But a pivotal event, according to her, was when Jade told her that, according to Kingdom Hall teachings, some of the things that she would be required to be involved in are “Satanic”. This influenced the school administration to revoke the post of head girl, as they thought that they would be placing the minor in a position to execute duties that would directly go against what she believed in, and that this would be unethical.

They also decided not to share the “Satanic” comment with the media, as they feared that this would provoke an unpleasant backlash directed at the child, and decided to take the heat instead.  Mrs Reid Johnson and the chairman of the school board, the Rev Leon Golding, assured me that the school does not discriminate against persons of other beliefs, and that there have been head girls who have belonged to various denominations and religions, including Seventh-day Adventism, the Church of God, and even Hinduism. But it is well known that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not engage in certain activities such as singing the national anthem and flag-raising ceremonies, which would be required of a head girl. However, when asked about her reference to Satanic practices, Jade expressed disappointment with the fact that it was being used against her, saying that the word was used during an answer to a direct question and does not reflect her opinion or belief. She said that the principal asked her why Jehovah’s Witnesses do not take on leadership positions, and she replied: “According to them, this system of things is Satanic based and is temporary, and we should strive to be not of this world.”

The context in which the word was used, if this were indeed the case, should not be an issue. (Her mother gave me permission to disclose this information.)

I do not believe that the school acted with malice, but that they erred at several points and could have exercised more sensitivity in dealing with the situation. Perusal of the student’s records and school documents and an interview at the time of appointment would have likely avoided the situation. Also, a discussion with the child and her mother (her father is deceased) at the time of the perceived conflict of interest may have also led to a different outcome. 

In my opinion, the religious affiliation of the child should be of no interest to the school in matters such as these. The child should simply be asked if she agrees to perform the required duties, and if she accepts and then reneges on the agreement, she can then be relieved of the post. I urge the school to reconsider its decision.

- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist,  comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@yahoo.com.