The numbers on the damage done by schools to children in the form of traditional school discipline can sometimes be mind-numbing. Five-point-four million children suspended one or more times every year by America’s public schools. Two hundred sixty thousand more referred to law enforcement and juvenile courts. Ninety-two thousand additional kids arrested. Seventy thousand restrained, either with handcuffs or other devices. Thirty-seven thousand put into seclusion or solitary confinement. At least 28 injured, maimed, or killed by police officers working in schools.
Rarely do we ever put a name or face to these barbaric acts of educational malpractice. But today, Ahmed Mohamed became a more-public example of what we do to children, especially those black and brown. And another example of why the overuse of such harsh approaches to discipline must come to an end.
As many of you know by now, the 14-year-old young man from the Irving Texas, was arrested in school by police after showing his teacher at MacArthur High a digital clock that he built on his own. The teacher believed that Ahmed had built a bomb, and after referring the incident to school leaders, had him arrested and taken down to the suburban Dallas city’s police station, where officers were annoyed that he wouldn’t call the clock anything other than a horological device that it was.
While Ahmed has been released without being charged with a crime — a sensible thing for law enforcement to do since the clock was a clock — Irving’s police chief somehow blames the young man for not being “forthcoming” about building a tool for telling time. Ahmed has also been suspended from school by the Irving Independent School District until tomorrow morning. The district, of course, argues that there’s another side to the story. It also declares that Ahmed wasn’t targeted because he is Muslim and, therefore considered a terrorist. But it won’t say more under the guise of protecting student privacy. [The fact that the district will likely face a well-deserved civil tort from Ahmed’s family also factors into the silence.]
Unlike most children subjected to harsh school discipline, Ahmed has been feted by the likes of the President of the United States and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He has also become the darling of Arab and Muslim activists tired of being the latest of a long line of religious and ethnic minorities subjected to America’s time-honored tradition of state-sanctioned bigotry. Unlike so many children who have (and will be) suspended this year, there may be a happy ending to Ahmed’s predicament.
Yet Ahmed’s story, while different in both the circumstances and its conclusion (so far), isn’t that much different from what happens with so many children in American public education.
Few children are ever suspended for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession. This has been consistently proven over the past two decades by researchers such as Indiana University’s Russ Skiba and Linda Raffaele Mendez of the University of South Florida. More often than not, kids are more-likely to be suspended for non-violent offenses such as disruptive behavior, which are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders depending on how they view the children in their care.
Children from poor and minority backgrounds, especially young black men and women as well as kids condemned to special ed ghettos, are more-likely to be suspended than white peers in regular classrooms. As a team led by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted earlier this year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 23.2 percent for black middle- and high schoolers in 2013-2014 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education) is three times the 6.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. This, too, has been consistent in analysis of data, this time that of state governments.
As with the overlabeling of young men as special ed cases, a key reason why so many children black and brown have been suspended lies with the perceptions of adults in schools about the kids they are supposed to teach. Recent studies of the perceptions of children held by their teachers echo Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s longstanding point that adults in schools end up deeming kids as unworthy because they think they are destined to end up that way. This is one reason why a team led by University of Pittsburgh researcher John Wallace demonstrated in a 2008 study that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be referred dean’s offices — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended — for the same offenses than white peers.
The overuse of harsh discipline has become even more-problematic thanks to zero-tolerance policies and the expanded presence of police officers in schools driven by the federal Community Oriented Police program and rare incidents of mass shooting such as the Columbine Massacre. The number of cops patrolling schoolhouses increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This has resulted in incidents of children being suspended and arrested for writing fictional accounts of hunting dinosaurs, as well as being choked and brain-damaged by school cops for helping to break up fights in hallways.
What has been proven ad nauseam, over the insistence of traditionalists such as the National Education Association’s Texas State Teachers Association, as well as so-called reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is that school discipline as practiced by both traditional districts and far too many charter schools, damages the futures of children. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Because schools are the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies, they are also putting out children, especially the most-vulnerable, into a cycle of cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge.
What has also been clear, thanks to data, is that the overuse of harsh school discipline doesn’t improve school cultures or even help children learn. If anything, the worst-performing schools and districts are the ones that mete out such penalties the most. This shouldn’t be a surprise. High levels of suspensions, seclusions, and restraints are both a sign of the failures of adults within school systems to address underlying learning issues such as literacy as well as a signal that teachers and school leaders have little empathy or concern for the children in their care.
This isn’t to say that every child suspended or arrested is just like Ahmed. Not at all. The reality is that there will be those rare occasions on which a child behaves violently enough to deserve being removed from schools. But we have enough evidence to know that the key word should be rare. Far too often, we are suspending far too many children, and condemning their futures to the economic and social abyss. Ahmed Mohamed’s situation should be a wake-up call to all those who say they care for building brighter futures for children to actually do so. And that can start with ending the overuse of traditional discipline practices that just don’t work for that very purpose.