Ahmed Mohamed’s ‘hoax bomb’ suspension another case of school punishment gone too far

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Ahmed Mohamed’s ‘hoax bomb’ suspension another case of school punishment gone too far

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School is supposed to be a place where young minds are cultivated and where students find their passions. School is about learning who you are and what you want to be. It is about encouraging creativity, not punishing it.

On Monday, Sept. 14, Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim high school student in Irving, Texas, was arrested for bringing a “hoax bomb” to school with him. The bomb in question? The insides of a digital alarm clock reconstructed within a small, briefcaselike pencil case. It contained no payload of any kind, just wires, a circuit board and a digital display. And yet, one of Ahmed’s teachers reacted rashly, and the school called the police, who arrested Ahmed and led him out of school in handcuffs.

Reactions to the story were wide ranging, with many people slamming the school and police for an incident that should have been easily explained away. A vocal minority attacked Ahmed for not foreseeing a potential problem with bringing a device that might appear to be a bomb to school with him. Regardless of the viewpoints, the whole situation caused a lot of anger and not much in terms of concrete resolution. The school refused to apologize, upholding Ahmed’s suspension; police ended up not filing charges; and Ahmed eventually withdrew from the high school.

This whole situation led The University News Editorial Board to discuss the effects of school shootings on school policy. Even 20 years ago, before the Columbine High School massacre, a student bringing in a homemade clock of sorts probably would not have resulted in punishment, much less make national news. Schools were considered a safe place, and a teacher’s reaction to such a creation likely would not have been a product of fear.

Similarly, before 9/11, a Muslim student probably would not have elicited a response different than a white student. We cannot know for sure if the response to Ahmed’s situation was motivated by discrimination, even subconsciously, but that is what many believe, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil liberties group in the U.S., which condemned the actions of the school and police as Islamophobic.

Since Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, many schools have shifted to even stronger zero-tolerance policies when it comes to violence or actions that may promote violence. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated in 1998 that three-quarters of public schools had zero-tolerance policies for weapons or firearms. That number increased to 94 percent in 2011, and the threshold for what constitutes violence has been significantly lowered as well. In such cases, context is unimportant, only the act committed.

While suspending or expelling a student for bringing a weapon to school makes sense, many punishments under zero-tolerance often make the news for their irrationality. For example, a 7-year-old Maryland boy was suspended in March 2013 for biting his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. In March 2014, a 10-year-old Ohio student was suspended for pointing his fingers into the shape of a gun. A similar case happened in March 2015 with a 6-year-old Colorado boy.

In the case of Ahmed Mohamed, suspending him for what was, at worst, a miscalculation made out of excitement does not make sense. The initial reaction from the teacher was somewhat extreme, but it is also hard to fault her for being overly cautious in a time when school shootings are more common than they were 20 years ago. But once it was determined that Ahmed was not a threat, the school and police should have apologized for the misunderstanding and allowed the whole thing to go away. Instead, they refused to admit wrongdoing and made the problem worse.

Schools absolutely should be exercising caution — our children’s safety is important, after all — but once an initial threat is avoided, there is no need for such harsh punishment. Context matters, yet zero-tolerance does not allow for it.