Yesterday, the story of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old high school student in Irving, TX, dominated headlines. The teen boy was interrogated by police officers, handcuffed, arrested, and detained in a juvenile center, all for bringing a clock to school — one that he built himself. The image of this bright, aspiring scientist, wearing a NASA T-shirt with his hands cuffed behind his back, spread through social media, eliciting widespread support and an invitation to the White House from President Obama. Much of the response to Ahmed’s treatment has focused on the Islamophobia that seemed to fuel the police response. And rightfully so: After Ahmed, whose parents emigrated from Sudan, was brought to a room of four police officers, one officer reportedly said, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was” — essentially confirming that he'd assumed the brown-skinned student would be the one behind a suspected attack. That episode illustrates the entrenched bigotry toward Muslims that still exists in the U.S., but it also points to another kind of discrimination happening daily in the nation’s schools: the assumed criminality of black- and brown-skinned students, and the subsequent treatment of those students as criminals rather than children.
What happened to Ahmed happens to schoolchildren in Texas and around the country every day.
From the moment Ahmed's school called the police, to the handcuffs, the arrest, and the suspension, what happened to him happens to schoolchildren in Texas and around the country every day. And, sadly, it's much more likely to happen to brown-skinned students like Ahmed. “Unfortunately, we cannot rely on data to get a clear picture of what is happening to Arab and Muslim students in Texas — that demographic breakdown rarely exists for the school-discipline and school-police data that is kept,” explains Morgan Craven, director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project for Texas Appleseed, a legal-advocacy group. “We do know that children of color experience disproportionately high rates of exclusionary school discipline, school police contact, and court referrals," she says. A 2011 study found that a remarkable 60% of Texas students had been suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grade, with Black and Latino students overrepresented, compared to their white peers. Only 3% of those were instances where state law mandated suspension of expulsion — meaning the rest of the 97% came at the discretion of the school. Discretion — how schools decide whether a student gets suspended or just detention — is a big piece of the puzzle. Often, when people hear the numbers, they assume the children must have done something to deserve such treatment; what makes Ahmed’s story so sympathetic is that he's so obviously a good kid. But although children of color experience disproportionate discipline at school, it’s not because they are more likely to misbehave. Just as bias, even if it was unconscious bias, led MacArthur High School officials to see Ahmed’s clock as a threat, it leads Black students to be suspended and expelled at three times the rate of their white peers for the same behavior. Ahmed may be exceptional for his mastery of technology but not for his being innocent.
Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of their white peers — for the same behavior.
Of course, even children who do misbehave (as lots of us did) don't necessarily deserve to be handcuffed, removed from school, or pulled into the criminal-justice system. That kind of treatment can have a profound effect on a child’s emotional and academic well-being. “For the students of color who are impacted, this overly punitive discipline has severe consequences, including increased likelihood of dropping out of school, feelings of stigma, and disengagement from learning,” says Janel George, senior education policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Although the outpouring of support for Ahmed has actually opened up educational opportunities for him — including an invitation to be interviewed on TV to offers from astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein to tour MIT, his dream school — the overwhelming majority of students who’ve been suspended or arrested face closed doors, not open ones. Those students are more likely to fall behind academically, more likely to drop out of school, and more likely to enter (or re-enter) the justice system. “When we treat children like criminals, we strip them of their humanity and their innocence,” says George. Indeed, Ahmed said that his ordeal made him feel like he “wasn’t human.” The image of Ahmed standing before the police officers, suddenly becoming aware of his skin color and his name, is one that’s hard to get out of your mind. No child should have to face the adults charged with caring for him and realize that they see him not for his humanity but for his racial or religious identity. It should be Ahmed’s humanity that saves him, not his brilliance. “I don’t think he’ll ever be able to live normally again,” Ahmed’s sister Ayisha said yesterday. For Ahmed, the trauma of being handcuffed and detained may be mitigated by the flood of solidarity and love. But there are millions of other children of color face recovering from their own dehumanizing encounters with police — millions of other kids too young to have their hands cuffed behind their backs — who need the same support.