#IStandWithAhmed, But It’s Complicated

If you haven’t met Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth-grader from Irving, Texas, he is by all accounts a good kid. He’s an engineering whiz who spends much of his time holed up in his room playing with circuitry and power supplies, and knows more about electronics than you do. He also happens to be Muslim and of Middle Eastern descent.

He was arrested recently for building a digital clock that looked strikingly like what movies tell me a bomb looks like.

istandbut2Ahmed is a skinny kid with an easy smile. He was arrested wearing a NASA t-shirt, so naturally the zeitgeist of Twitter users rallied to his side with the hashtag #istandwithahmed. Surprisingly, they’re not wrong. Unless some serious evidence to the contrary is released, Ahmed’s case appears to be nothing more than an overreaction by school officials and the local sheriff’s office. Law enforcement is adamant that he will not be criminally charged, and Ahmed should have any record of his arrest expunged.

However, the online judge and jury have overstated their case. (At least Hillary Clinton weighed in,  so we didn’t have to worry about it getting too political.)

There may well be prejudice against Muslims, people of western Asian descent, or nerdy boys endemic in the public school system of Irving. It may be endemic in Texas ,as a state, or America, as a country. As I know nobody affiliated with this situation, let alone anyone from Irving, I can’t comment either way. But, I do know something about the educational and human services complex of this country, and it is this that has occasioned my comment.

The primary benchmark of an educated populace is the literacy rate, and the United States has seen a drastic uptick in its national literacy since school became compulsory in 1900. As with most government requirements, it was eventually made free. Free public education, as with other free services, does not seem on its face to be a negative thing, but, unintended consequences are so named for a reason.

Free school begets an attitude of entitlement. Many families that could afford to homeschool their children, or enroll them in private school, choose not to do so. Private school enrollments account for only 10 percent of all students in the U.S. and homeschoolers for only 3 percent. A parent who opts out of public school is in the stark minority. (Here’s a social experiment for your next party: have one friend announce “I’m Muslim” and another say “I homeschool my kids” and see which of them is less popular.)

Because of the vast role public school holds, and the enormous budget it commands, we’ve begun to see teachers and administrators less as educators and more as surrogate parents. They, after all, get more face time with our children on a daily basis than we do. Thus, we make them responsible for teaching our children character. They teach our children about sex and how to avoid drugs, how to cook, balance their checkbook, and how to drive a car. The timeless question–“What did you learn in school today?”–could properly be answered: “Everything.”

But being a public school teacher is the ultimate thankless job. When something bad happens, schools immediately transform back into “them.” Teachers and administrators stop being secondary caregivers and become the blamed. Columbine was the face of educational failure to protect, but every day (and in every part of the country) schools are blamed for not keeping their students safe. Schools argue, probably rightly, that they’re not given the tools to properly care for their students: not enough money, not enough security.

One school I knew well saw a terrific fight in its parking lot, a melee joined by adults who were called in via cellphone. Cellphone bans have been proffered countless times by school districts, including the one housing the school in question, and are routinely shouted down by parents who can’t countenance the possibility that they would only be able to contact their babies via the office phone.

So, Ahmed takes out a ticking, beeping device with a bunch of wires dangling and a clock.  A teacher, who does not know the context and may hardly know the student (keep in mind this incident occurred within the first  weeks of a new school year, and Ahmed is a freshman) realizes she’ll need to make a judgment call. She must refer him to the administration, or advise him to keep it out of sight. In retrospect, the first teacher made the right call; the second made the wrong one. But, having to make the call at all shows the enormous pressures educators face in such an environment.

The local sheriff was unambiguous as Ahmed will not be criminally charged. He says officers took the child into custody to determine not if the device was a bomb, but whether or not he intended to cause a panic. Once it became clear this was not the case, Ahmed was released. Again, retrospective is unhelpful; at the time, nobody knew for certain what they were dealing with.

Consider the potential consequences of either action: if they didn’t make an arrest, and later it turned out the child did indeed bring a bomb to school and was testing the school’s response, the results would be devastating. The consequence of wrongly arresting him was considerably less dire, He was released without charge, no harm done.

Yet, the zeitgeist ensured harm was done. The prevailing narrative is now that a racist town in Texas tried to silence a bright young boy. I am doubtful that any racism or profiling was in play here–children of all races and sexes are suspended daily under zero-tolerance policies, even arrested under similar circumstances, in all corners of this nation.

I do feel certain of this, both as a parent and as a former educator: this same situation will arise again and again until we reimagine our public schools and return them to their rightful role of educating children to full literacy and technical competence, while parents retake their role in educating children about life.

Image Credits: Dallas News

You Might Also Like