On Monday September 14th 2015 in Irving, Texas, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a Sudanese-Muslim 9th grader of MacArthur High School was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school. While many are rightly focusing on the anti-Muslim bigotry that led to Ahmed’s targeting, we cannot afford to miss the larger systems and policies in which this case is rooted, namely the School to Prison Pipeline, anti-Black racism, institutional forms of bullying, and national policies promoting Islamophobia.
It is the culture of zero tolerance inside our schools that criminalizes students and sees policing and harsh discipline policies as the solution to every problem. These policies are heavily enforced in racialized ways to target Black, Latino, Native, and LGBTQ youth, and increasingly Muslim youth. The voices of young people and their creativity, particularly those of youth of color, continue to be silenced and criminalized in the very institutions that are supposed to nurture them. Seemingly innocuous acts, self expression, or minor incidents, take on different implications based on the perceived identities of students. A Native student is suspended for speaking in her language, a Black student is suspended for stopping a classmate from cutting herself with a razor, a Queer student is suspended for wearing a t-shirt expressing her identity, and another Black student is suspended for a science experiment gone awry.
We have seen how youth have been racialized in ways that reflect the systems of oppression that impact them – mass criminalization and incarceration, immigration, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Similarly, racialized perceptions of Muslim students have been formed by decades of discriminatory policies, such as surveillance and racial profiling at home, and foreign policies and militarism abroad. National security programs, such as CVE-Countering Violent Extremism, are predicated on assumptions of radicalization of Muslim youth, and then promoted amongst law enforcement, public education, and social service governmental agencies. With such policies in place, Ahmed’s identity as a young Black, Arab, and Muslim student, shapes how the very object, a homemade clock, is perceived, despite Ahmed’s protests and the clear physical evidence to the contrary. A clock is no longer a clock if in the hands of a student like Ahmed.
We also take note, that while the White House, and many of our own communities have taken initiative on addressing bullying behavior of students experienced by Arab, Muslim, South Asian, Sikh, and Asian communities, there are multiple forms of institutionalized bullying by authority figures within schools, which are made invisible and therefore never held accountable. The repeated harassment of Ahmed, and sarcastic remarks to his clear explanations by teachers, administrators and police officers are not acknowledged as bullying in conversations about school culture and climate. This is what bullying, criminalization and systemic racism looks like for millions of young people of color in their everyday experiences at schools.
Ahmed’s experience is a lesson for the White House and schools across the US. As this is not an isolated case, the solution is not an invitation to the White House nor the continuation of programs and policies that provide official sanction and legitimacy to social bigotry. We have to examine and change the existing policies that would escalate an expression of ingenuity to a case of school discipline, policing, and national security. A clear way for such change, is to shift our priorities for how we allocate resources, away from harsh discipline, policing, and militarism, and towards public education, restorative justice, community building, and conflict resolution, so that young people have a healthy school environment where all youth are embraced in the fullness of their beings. Nobody will do this for us, and we must continue to organize our communities to make it happen.
For more stories about the spectrum of absurd reasons that students get suspended and criminalized, please see SuspensionStories. Read here for coverage of how the school-to-prison pipeline impacts the Muslim and South Asian youth DRUM organizes. To work towards dismantling the school to prison pipeline, get involved in a local organizations like DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving, and join national efforts such as the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the Alliance for Educational Justice.