School Climate & Safety Opinion

Ahmed and the Clock: Could This Happen in Your School?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 20, 2015 6 min read
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By now most everyone has heard about a 9th grade student, Ahmed Mohamed, who brought a clock to school. The Dallas Morning News reported that a teacher thought it might be a bomb, reported it to a school leader, who called the police and together removed him from the classroom. According to reports, the student was interrogated by a group of police officers and taken to a detention center before he could see his parents. In this case, the young man received a message from President Obama, will be visiting the White House and is planning to change schools. He has heard from the President of MIT and from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. In other cases, students do not meet such a happy ending.

No doubt there will be much follow-up and press, articles, responses, and perhaps a law suit. But even without knowing more about the details of the case, we think the facts mentioned above serve as enough information to provoke questions about how we address issues of bias, prejudice, policies, practices, and common sense. The treatment of Ahmed Mohamed should serve as a wake-up call for everyone to step back, just a moment, to reflect on our fears and our rushes to judgment. What would we have done to balance the encouragement of student creativity with safety and a perceived threat? Someone with a calm head and great insight, someone who knew this young man ...where was that voice in the process? So, the question rises...was it the clock or the clock in the hands of a Muslim student that sparked the fear and set the response in motion?

In some schools, nearly every teacher knows or can recognize all the students. Teachers have the opportunity to speak with each other about students, even those who are not assigned to their classes. In those schools maybe the engineering teacher who saw the clock first would have given a heads up to the other teachers for the day. If led wisely, the culture of those schools allows for not only a sense of safety, but an easily articulated set of behaviors and active relationships that allow for familiarity, sharing, and understanding. But, here, it seems that didn’t happen.

As of their 2014 Report Card, 2,716 students attend McArthur High School. That is a large school by most standards. We wonder why, though, the actions of the teacher(s) and school leaders resulted in Ahmed’s story remaining unconfirmed, his parents not being called and the police hauling him off in handcuffs. Precaution reigned and it appears Ahmed himself was not protected. We have witnessed this type of over-reaction by the police over these past few years when responding to black suspects; some of those sadly ending in death. But within schools if this happens, it is not as visible as this case of Ahmed and the clock. Let this incident serve as motivation to evaluate responses and communication systems, bias and potential bias, and how students and each other are treated.

Ahmed’s school’s Code of Conduct does state that students are not to possess a “look- alike weapon.” The Code of Conduct also outlines considerations for consequences as: The following factors will be considered:

  1. seriousness of the offense
  2. student’s age
  3. the frequency of the misconduct
  4. student’s attitude
  5. potential effect of the misconduct on school environment
  6. the requirements of Chapter 37 of the Education Code
  7. the Student Code of Conduct adopted by the Board
  8. self defense
  9. intent or lack of intent at the time the student engages in the conduct
  10. the student’s disciplinary history
  11. a disability that substantially impairs the student’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the student’s conduct

Were they following a zero tolerance policy or perhaps a zero tolerance state of mind? It was the Gun-Free Schools Act, passed in 1994, that started the ball rolling. In April 1999, the horror of Columbine began the long road of school violence and the concomitant need to increase safety. Vigilance turned into fueling zero tolerance thinking, and September 11th, 2001 compounded our fears.

School Safety Officers were placed in many schools to help both with the trouble within and the trouble that could enter the doors. Even with those measures in place, we cannot stop every act of violence. But, violence in schools has decreased over the past 15 years. Therein lies a problem. Is the “downward trend” a result of our vigilance? How can we know? So for many schools, the alert response to anything that appears to be dangerous or unfamiliar continues and in many schools, adherence to a zero tolerance state of mind, continues, even though research does not support its success.

Keep Schools Safe For All While Attending To Each Child
Ahmed was not disciplined by the school as of this writing, but his treatment during the investigation raises serious question. Taken seriously, and to heart, the welfare of each child is of as much importance as the welfare of the school as a whole. Often school leaders make discipline decisions at the nexus of those two priorities. If we want our teachers and leaders to continue to create and maintain environments in which children and adults feel safe, physically as well as emotionally, then we cannot lose our humanity when dealing with them. No matter their religion, skin color, gender, gender identity, ability, weight, or manner, we must remain aware of their humanity and stay in touch with our own. No doubt the educators involved in the removal of Ahmed Mohamed were acting with integrity to protect the school but, likely, lost control of the situation as it became a police matter.

This is understandable in our current atmosphere of fear. But let us not allow that atmosphere pull us as educators away from the role of in loco parentis. It demands we act as the parent of every child, even Ahmed Mohamed. Hurting one child sends a message to all. Just as the suspension of a child who brings a weapon to school protects all children, the mistreatment of one child pierces the fragile bubble of safety surrounding all children in school. Trust is eroded. We need to blend the school and police values to ensure the child and the schools are equally protected. If not we will be on a slippery slope where we lose our hold on our responsibility to help develop these youngsters as they grow through their school experiences on our watch. Allow this event open the door to reflection and important discussions between leaders and teachers. Questions open thinking and leaders can create the space for reflection and discussion. Could this happen in our school? Why or why not? How might a child’s name or ethnic origin fuel our actions or the actions of the police? Is there any child of any color, from any country, of any gender, of any sexual orientation, of any weight, of any socio-economic level, to whom this could occur in our school? What do we need to do next?

Ahmed may come out of this experience whole, in a new school, having been encouraged by the President of the United States, the college of his dreams, and the likes of Mark Zuckerberg. But how many children, those who may not have parents who can advocate for them, in situations that do not make the news, how many of them are left silently broken? Let us not allow fear for the safety of all harm any child. Didn’t we become educators to make a difference in the lives of children? Let us not allow fear to pull us from our calling.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.