Ahmed Mohamed a lesson against zero-tolerance policy

Bryan Eberly and Bryan Eberly

Before I begin my column, I just want to get on my high horse for a second and make it clear that I have waited two weeks to talk about Ahmed Mohamed. I have waited until the situation has resolved and the attention on Mohamed placed where it needed to be placed, i.e. on him.

I was appalled at the sheer amount of politics and debate that came from his story less than a day after it was released. It distracted people from the very necessary action of correcting a slight against a child. Instead, the attention he needed was shifted to other things like racism, the President’s drone policy, Islamophobia etc. People seemed to stop caring that a boy’s dreams were being dashed, and instead decided their political gains were more important.

It is a testament to the leaders around Mohamed that he was able to be vindicated despite the whirlwind of politics around him at the time.

That being said, this week’s column is going to be focused on one side of the political nature of Mohamed’s story. And that is the dangers and foolishness of zero-tolerance policies in public schools.

There is nothing more dangerous to human liberty than fear and a desire for more security to calm that fear. While there are many dangerous things that come from this, the biggest culprit I can think of today, in America, is the public school zero-tolerance policy.

I understand the desire for zero-tolerance policies. Basically, the theory goes that if an activity is to be prevented, it must be prevented in its absolute. If I don’t want kids dying from a reaction to nut allergies, I must therefore completely ban nuts and nut byproducts from the school, for example. Or if I don’t want kids bringing bombs to school, I will punish a kid for bringing something that looks like a bomb (according to any given authority figure, anyway).

This is foolish. As we see from the story of Mohamed, it leads to ridiculous and possibly damaging outcomes.

The story behind Ahmed Mohamed is probably very clear in your head. Just in case, however, I will rehash it here. And then I will explain the damage and ridiculousness behind it.

Ahmed Mohamed is a 14-year-old boy in Irving, Texas, who wanted to bring an engineering project he completed to school. It was a homemade clock Mohamed had built out of spare parts. Mohamed was proud of it and wanted to show it off, as any kid would. He showed it to his engineering teacher who lauded the effort, but then advised Mohamed to keep it in his book bag for the rest of the day. The clock made some noise during Mohamed’s English class, and he showed it to his teacher. That teacher reported it as a bomb look-alike.

Mohamed was arrested and faced charges of bringing a hoax bomb to school and staging a fake bomb threat. Luckily, he was never charged and was let go.

But the damage was already done. A child’s creativity, innovation and pride were met with minimal praise and an arrest. And why? Because a teacher thought he made something and without proof, the school reacted as they would to a real threat.

No, wait, forget I just said that, because that would actually justify the case. If they thought it was a bomb, it is rational to have reacted to it. If that were the case, though, Mohamed would have been apprehended, the school evacuated, and a bomb squad called out to dispose of it.

Instead, the school thought Mohamed was pretending to have a bomb as a means of scaring the school. This is where the zero-tolerance problem lies. Without any shred of proof, Mohamed was treated like a criminal because it merely looked like he did something criminal, and the school cannot tolerate something that even looks like something they shun.

The message I’ve received from this is that a child should not try to be innovative in the field of engineering. They could scare someone. Rather, they should build things in the dark and keep them hidden away. They should keep their talents and intelligence hidden away. So much for supporting a child’s education, which is what I thought public school was for.

Now, I know, as usual, I am probably oversimplifying and missing several points here. But, as always, I invite people to let me know. Please do. Education majors especially: what am I getting wrong? And, as always, thanks for reading.