Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock
Few if any children should be led out of school in handcuffs.
You were probably around when the story of Ahmed Mohamed started. In case you avoid news and social media or have somehow already forgotten, Ahmed Mohamed is a 14-year-old boy in Irving, Texas who built a digital clock out of parts and brought it to school to show it off. The day ended with him being led out of school in handcuffs on suspicion of bomb-related activity.
This then rapidly became one of those stories that captured the attention of social media, as it seems everyone including the President of the United States weighed in on the injustice of the situation. The world has rightly focused on the racial aspect of the incident. Ahmed Mohamed is a Muslim boy living in post-9/11 America and he brought something to school that superficially looked like a bomb.
Actually it looked nothing like a bomb. It looked like the sort of bomb you might see in an episode of the A-Team or MacGyver or an old James Bond movie. It looked like a mockup of a bomb. It also looked like a home made digital clock. Whatever it looked like, the authorities certainly didn’t treat it like they believed it was a bomb. They didn’t evacuate the school. They didn’t call in a bomb squad. They didn’t explode the package. Instead they called a single police officer who walked out of the building carrying the instrument. I know I wouldn’t do that with anything I had the remotest inclination to think might be an explosive device.
But I digress. We have seen media piece after media piece, plus dozens of status updates or tweets about the racial dimensions of this incident. That is right and fine. There is certainly a racial dimension to a Muslim boy being perp-walked out of school in handcuffs on suspicion of… something having to do with bombing, or whatever.
While this discussion has gone on, as we say this child should not have been dragged out of school in handcuffs, a separate but related point has gone mostly unmentioned. Every day, many American school children are escorted from school to the criminal or juvenile justice system, often in cuffs. Our schools have become an adjunct of our courts, or perhaps our courts have become an adjunct of our schools. Is there a difference?
It was not always this way. I never saw a single student arrested out of school in my childhood, which legally concluded in 1992. The idea was, to me, unthinkable. I am led to understand this is now a regular occurrence at the very same high school that I attended, and I know it happens at many other high schools in Louisiana and around the country. We have even developed a name for it. It’s the School-to-Prison Pipeline. It starts with excluding children from school for minor offenses, putting them on the streets and weakening their social ties to school and their inclusion in the educational process. It ends with dropping out of school and entering the fraught economic and social underclass that is disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, or it can end more directly when a student goes straight from the halls of the school to the cell of a jail.
It doesn’t have to happen, and it shouldn’t happen. In the rare occasion when school is the setting of serious criminal activity (as opposed to normative childhood behavior that also happens to violate a law), how often does the child actually need to suffer the indignity and embarrassment of restraining cuffs? Why did this child in particular, who is less than full-grown and slightly built, have to be physically restrained in this manner? Did he represent some kind of safety risk to the officer? I fail to believe the officer, upon patting him down for weapons which undoubtedly happened, believed the child to be some sort of physical threat. Perhaps he was cuffed because he was believed to be a flight risk? And if so, where would this child have gone where he couldn’t have been readily found, assuming he could outrun the police officer at all? Maybe they needed to ask him whether they needed to cut the red wire or the blue wire. I don’t know.
We have made great strides in the movement to end indiscriminate juvenile shackling in court. It seems that every week some court or some state is enacting some new rule that says juvenile cannot be made to suffer the practice of shackling unless there is some reason to believe the child is dangerous or a flight risk. How hard can it be to have the same rule apply in our schools? Or even better, we can have a rule that says unless the child is dangerous, he should be left at school until the end of the day, or until the end of each school day.