As an educator, I am and always will be a public school advocate. I believe in the hard work that teachers put in everyday to meet the needs of their students. I am inspired by school leadership dedicated to creating a positive learning environment. When schools and teachers are criticized as an educator I go on the defensive trying to really figure out the reasoning behind the action being condemned. That’s why when I heard about the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed for building a homemade clock; I searched for a way to legitimize the arrest.
There had to be probable cause. The school had to have evidence to arrest this 9th grader. After all it is the school’s responsibility to keep the students safe. So I searched through all the information so I could find evidence to defend the actions of my fellow educators at MacArthur High School. However, nothing, absolutely nothing put up a red flag to explain the 14 year old being walked out of his school in handcuffs, being taken to the juvenile detention center to be searched and being interrogated, without his parents present. I was shocked. Did a school system really fail in their reasoning and allow a student to feel “ like a criminal,” as Ahmed had felt.
As educators we can all say I would never let this happen at my school? My District would never make such a dumb move! However, be candidly honest with yourself. In this hyper-vigilant society where gun violence is at an all time high in schools, where 9/11 has left us questioning our over all safety – could this happen under your watch, at your school? As an educator or a parent do you find yourself secretly acknowledging that maybe it is a good thing Ahmed got interrogated and searched. That this precaution had to be taken to ensure that a briefcase bomb couldn’t have killed and injured hundreds. As educators we often have to make decisions in a split second that affect the lives of our students that we are entrusted to protect.
However, I would urge all educators to go through the next step of questioning and reflection that is key to our profession: Why did Mac Arthur High School feel the need to arrest this 9th grader? Were they following a sound safety protocol? Was this an unwarranted knee jerk reaction? Or was it what so many Americans are labeling as racial profiling? If the slightest part of your educator psyche thinks that it was racial or religious profiling what steps are you going to take to remedy these negative thoughts? What steps would you suggest your school take to never let this kind of incident happen to a student in any school?
Whether we like it or not, as educators we are humans. The negative media messages about extremist violent groups may result in our stereotypical attitudes, it may make us look at certain people with caution. The question is how can we as educators meet the 21st century goal that we have set for our students of being global citizens who have a mutual understanding and respect for people of diverse backgrounds? We can no longer just talk the talk; we have to implement pro-active measures.
We have to recognize that in our nation’s schools we have a growing case of cultural incompetence that has to be addressed. The only way that we can combat religious stereotyping, exclusion, racial profiling and other issues that ail an uncultivated cultural IQ is to nourish it with dialogue and understanding. As educators we are not immune to the sorry statistics and we have to participate in awareness dialogues, self-reflection and professional development to help increase our understanding and even our respect of different cultural and faith groups. We have to truly understand the limits of separation of church and state and that it does not mean that we should avoid promoting religious literacy in our school. In fact to avoid future cases of the unfortunate religious profiling case at MacArthur High School, all schools should be required to examine their understanding of the faith traditions of our country’s students. Ironically, education is the only way we can combat negative stereotyping.
I hope my fellow educators will join me in the work of truly understanding our country’s students by learning and teaching about their culture, their faith and their beliefs. This is the only way that we will nurture global citizens who will respectfully coexist in our colorfully, diverse world. We have pledged to meet the needs of our students. It’s time to follow through on that promise.
(A version of this article appeared in the Education Post.)