Stand with Ahmed? Then challenge the zero-tolerance mania

Zero-tolerance policies claimed a new victim this week when a 14-year-old schoolboy in Texas brought a homemade clock to his engineering class. After his teacher raised concerns about the device, police were called and Ahmed Mohamed was arrested on the basis that his little invention might have been a bomb. Once it was established that it was, indeed, a clock, he was quickly released without charge.

Ahmed has rightfully received a torrent of support from observers across the globe, including US President Barack Obama, but, too often, well-wishers missed the real problem. Many in the mainstream media are keen to perpetuate the narrative that this was an issue of race or religion. And thousands of tweets under the #IStandWithAhmed hashtag have spun the same line. However, regardless of whether Ahmed’s race was a factor in his arrest, his case is just the latest in a series of hysterical reactions to pupils’ behaviour in educational institutions in recent years.

As Robby Soave has pointed out in Reason, there have been dozens of cases in US schools that are as ridiculous as Ahmed’s. Just last month, a 16-year-old boy from South Carolina was arrested and suspended for writing a story about shooting a dinosaur. Earlier in the year, a seven-year-old boy was suspended from a Maryland school for biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot it.

All of these boys, Ahmed included, are victims of a culture driven by neurotic, risk-averse adults. To suggest that Ahmed is being singled out on the grounds of race is to ignore a long-running campaign of zero tolerance towards any pupil behaviour that could be construed as potentially violent or threatening. 

Even if you could prove that race or religion was the main factor in Ahmed’s arrest, this would not change the fact that the mechanism that allowed it to happen was the enforcement of a zero-tolerance school policy. That is where any rage on the matter needs to be directed. A healthy dose of commonsense is needed now more than ever in the education sector. We have allowed mindless officialdom to run amok.

We need to call time on zero-tolerance policies – they cause pointless drama and stress. Indeed, Ahmed’s arrest has prompted him to want to change school. So yes, #IStandWithAhmed, but not to posture about race or oppression – I just want this madness to end.

Stephen Beard is a writer based in Liverpool.

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