When a clock is only a clock: Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline

Tamar Birckhead

Tamar BirckheadFourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed captured the attention of the public in September when he was arrested during his first weeks at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, for bringing a homemade clock to school to show his engineering teacher. This simple act qualified as a “hoax or perceived threat” under the school district’s codes of conduct, and even after it was established that the clock was merely a clock (despite the wires and exposed circuits), police removed Ahmed from the classroom, placed him in handcuffs and suspended him for three days.

Ahmed is tall and thin, with brown skin and glasses. His Muslim family immigrated from Somalia. Ahmed frequently brought his homemade inventions to Sam Houston Middle School, where he was a member of the robotics club. Apparently, the clock incident was not his first brush with school discipline. In sixth grade, Ahmed reportedly had been suspended for blowing bubbles in the bathroom with another student; on another occasion, he unsuccessfully invoked the First Amendment when faced with detention for speaking out in class; and in a third incident, after being suspended for a hallway fight, a suspension was overturned after he told the principal that he had acted in self-defense when a larger boy had choked him.

In other words, Ahmed appears not only to be a natural advocate but a young man who is comfortable with and adept at speaking up for himself — despite the draconian disciplinary policies found in many U.S. public schools.

It is not a coincidence that administrators at the Texas secondary schools Ahmed attended turned reflexively to punitive measures when confronted by typical adolescent misbehavior. A recent study by Texas A&M University found that 30 percent of Texas students in grades seven through 12 have received out-of-school suspensions, while 15 percent were either permanently expelled or suspended more than 10 times.

In fact, schools in the Irving Independent School District share all three of the principal risk factors for the school-to-prison pipeline: They underperform on high-stakes testing, providing a built-in incentive to push out low-performing students; they are underfunded, leading to overcrowded classrooms and little or no support staff for struggling students and their families, such as counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses; and they adhere to zero-tolerance policies in which minor acts of “insubordination” and “defiance” result in long-term suspension and prosecution in juvenile court.

[Related: Advocates Offer Solutions for Kids at Crossroads of School, Justice System]

Further, whether the result of explicit or implicit racial and ethnic bias, schools most likely to serve as feeders into the pipeline are those with 50 percent or more students of color and/or high percentages of ESL students, like those attended by Ahmed.

At the end of September, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced plans to reduce incarceration for nonviolent offenses and to reform school discipline policies. He acknowledged that in the past three decades, U.S. spending on state and local corrections has increased almost twice as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education. He acknowledged that U.S. schools suspend approximately 3.5 million students each year and refer 250,000 to the police. And he acknowledged these statistics are even more extreme for children of color and students with disabilities.

Although Secretary Duncan’s proposals to expand opportunities for quality preschool, increase teacher salaries and provide Pell “second chance” grants to those who are incarcerated are admirable and worthy of effort, they will do little to bring about fundamental change to the punitive climate that predominates in our public schools.

The reality is, the social safety net in the U.S. is broken, and the court system — particularly the juvenile court system — now serves as the only viable source of government-funded welfare for children and families living on the economic margins. When a low-income family with a troubled child needs assistance, they can no longer find it in the community, whether at school or at a neighborhood health clinic. Instead, they are referred to law enforcement in the form of school resource officers or juvenile court probation officers. It is only via these punitive systems that struggling children and their families have any meaningful chance to get the help they desperately need.

Short-term solutions must extend beyond increasing teacher pay and acknowledging implicit bias and racism. Armed security personnel are present in three out of four U.S. high schools and in the vast majority of schools that have over 1,000 students. The federal government must provide incentives to dramatically decrease their presence. There should be incentives for schools to end zerotolerance policies and to prohibit school resource officers from overseeing routine disciplinary issues. All school employees should receive training in basic adolescent development as well as mediation, conflict resolution and restorative justice practices, which have been shown to address disciplinary problems more effectively than detention, suspension or court referral.

Ahmed’s future looks bright. His family has withdrawn him from the Irving Independent School District, and he has invitations to visit President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. Meanwhile, however, the millions of other students across the U.S. whose typical adolescent behavior is regularly criminalized have few, if any, options. We must wait no longer to implement policies that meet their needs without pushing them out of schools and into prisons.

Tamar Birckhead is a criminal defense attorney, law professor and director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.

More related articles:

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The Secret Behind Youth Justice Reform: Youth

‘Disturbing Schools’ Law and School Resource Officers Criminalize Teens


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