Remembering Ahmed’s Clock: 3 Facts about the Harsh Reality of the School-to-Prison Cycle

In September, Ahmed Mohamed was detained by officers from the Irving Police Department for bringing a homemade clock to school that his teacher mistook for a bomb.

This may not have happened if Ahmed were not a student of color, a Muslim with foreign-born parents. The stereotypes associated with Ahmed’s existence may have led to his unfair arrest.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a real phenomenon, especially for students of color. Here are some facts for you that detail the reality of the school-to-prison cycle.

  1. Black students are suspended at a much higher rate than white students.

According to study by the University of Pennsylvania, students of color, specifically black students, are suspended at a much higher rate than white students. 70 percent of all in-school arrests are black or Latino students.

The study also notes that in 84 districts within the 13 states studied, “blacks were 100 percent of students suspended from school.”

  1. Over half of young black men who attend urban high schools do not earn a diploma.

Then, of the dropouts, nearly 60 percent will go to prison at some point. There are also eerily similar ones associated with young Latino men. (61 percent of the incarcerated population is black or Latino – despite the fact that these groups only represent 30 percent of the U.S. population. Nearly 68 percent of all men in federal prison never earned a high school diploma.)

  1. The school-to-prison pipeline is affecting the economy.

People who fall outside this fringe group of perceived misfits may wonder why the school-to-prison pipeline should matter to them. Outside of caring about the quality of life for other individuals, it matters in more tangible ways. Each federal prisoner costs taxpayers $28,284 per year, which is about $77 per day. That’s a measurable cost. What isn’t measurable is the indirect impact those incarcerations have on the economy in terms of those prisoners not contributing to the work force.

Fortunately, the situation does have a solution. In a blog post by Sally Powalski, a 10-year employee of juvenile facility in the State of Indiana, she gets to the root of the issue.

“They have been given the message for several years that they are not allowed in regular school programs, are not considered appropriate for sports teams, and have had their backs turned on them because everyone is just tired of their behavior… Why should they strive for more than a life of crime?”

The current concept of “zero tolerance” may sound like the best way to handle all offenses in public schools, but it really does a disservice to students. Not every infraction is a black and white issue and not every misstep by a student is a result of direct defiance. Often students with legitimate learning disabilities or social impairment are labeled as “disruptions” and removed from classroom settings under the guise of preserving the learning experience for other, “better” students. I suppose there is an argument to be made for protecting straight-and-narrow students from the sins of others, but at what cost?

We live in an age when the American Civil Liberties Union reports that children as young as 5 throwing tantrums have been removed in handcuffs by officers. Let’s look for more nuanced solutions that provide “trouble” students (and students who are just unfortunate victims of stereotypes, like Ahmed) with higher hopes and expectations for themselves.

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