The former head of security at Junction City High School is suing the Geary County school district for unfairly firing her as a “scapegoat” in the case of a student who was forced to justify wearing a head covering that she said was part of her religious beliefs.
Nikki Wolf of Junction City worked at the school for more than 30 years. She filed the lawsuit against Geary County School District USD 475 as well as Reginald Eggleston, superintendent of the Geary County School District, and Rina Neal, president of the school board at the time of the incident.
Wolf served as secondary security specialist for JCHS until the district fired her last year on the grounds that she violated policy on racial and disability harassment and the Title VI Civil Rights Amendment.
This followed an incident on Oct. 20, 2020, when Wolf questioned a student about the head scarf she was wearing that violated the “no-headwear” policy of the school.
Wolf maintains that she did not violate either of the policies cited and all her actions during the incident were in accordance with her job duties and without knowledge of any related exemption to the headwear policy of the school.
“These citations are incorrect and reflect the improper and grossly negligent manner in which Ms. Wolf and her 30-year career were thrust aside, slandered and trashed — all because Ms. Wolf did her job as she was trained by the district to do,” the lawsuit reads.
Patience Okemba, a sophomore student at JCHS last year, requested an exemption to the school’s no-headwear policy on Sept. 11, 2020, so that she could wear a hijab at school.
The lawsuit cites an investigation the school performed into the events, led by Scott Clark, USD 475 emergency management director, that confirmed that Becky Hickert, JCHS Principal of Business and Information Technology Academy at the time, asked Okemba to provide a written statement about the hijab and provide photos of herself wearing the hijab instead of granting her in-person request for a religious exemption on Sept. 11, 2020, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims Wolf was not aware of the request nor was the request granted until after she approached the student about the head covering on Oct. 20, 2020.
According to the document, on that day, Wolf saw Okemba wearing a garment on her head and identified it as a winter scarf. She reminded Okemba that no headgear was allowed, and the student told her she had to wear it.
The document said Wolf asked Okemba if she was wearing it for medical or religious reasons, and the student said she was wearing it for modesty. Without telling the girl to take the scarf off, Wolf escorted the student over to Melissa Sharp, who was then the principal of JCHS.
The document relays that the student nodded yes when Sharp asked her if it was for her religion, and Sharp asked what academy the student was in. Sharp then, according to the lawsuit, told Wolf to escort Okemba to Hickert’s office since she was the principal of the academy the student was in.
After escorting Okemba to Hickert’s office, Wolf left the two individuals at the office. The document states that those actions listed were the extent of Wolf’s involvement in the incident. A few days later, on Oct. 23, 2020, Eggleston suspended Wolf.
The investigation by the school and the actions of USD 475 related to these events, including suspensions and terminations, were directed by Eggleston and Neal.
The document states that nothing in the report completed by the school and dated Oct. 28, 2020, indicated that Wolf discriminated against Okemba because of her race or religion or that she harassed her in any way.
“The report clearly indicated that Ms. Wolf was following her specific duties and was fulfilling one of the essential functions of her job as defined by the district and the school,” the lawsuit reads.
About a week after the date of the report, Wolf was terminated effective Nov. 3, 2020. Her termination letter, according to the lawsuit, included that the termination was a result of violations of JGCEA — Racial and Disability Harassment and Title VI — Civil Rights Amendment of 1964.
“Defendants terminated Ms. Wolf to hold her out as a sacrificial lamb and to support the false narrative that Ms. Wolf was the one who acted with discriminatory intentions, and not the school,” the lawsuit reads. “Defendants covered up their own gross negligence and discrimination by terminating Plaintiff and using her as a scapegoat, to force Plaintiff to take the blame for Defendants’ own wrongdoing.”
After the incident, USD 475 also suspended Sharp, and the school district hired Merrier Jackson as her replacement. The district still paid Sharp a full salary until the end of the school year on June 30 while it also paid Jackson. Sharp then resigned after the school year.
Wolf is represented by Matthew P. Clune, an attorney with the James Sobba law firm in Kansas City.
David R. Cooper and Brian C. Mauldin of Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith, LLP, will represent Geary County School District USD 475, Eggleston and Neal.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 27, asks the Geary County District Court to grant judgement against the defendants for an amount in excess of $75,000 for the plaintiff’s costs and for “further relief the court or jury deems just and equitable.”
The defendants have until Dec. 6 to answer or plead to the petition, according to court documents.