Dallas — The recent arrest of a 14-year-old Muslim boy whose teacher mistook his homemade clock for a bomb led to widespread ridicule of school officials and accusations that Islamophobia may have played a part.

It earned Ahmed Mohamed an invitation to the White House, where the Irving teen will attend astronomy night Monday. But it also got him a three-day suspension, which he says the district insisted he serve even after it was clear it was just a clock.

Ahmed’s suspension — his parents have since withdrawn him from the school — reflects the rigid disciplinary policies that many U.S. schools adopted in the 1990s. But many districts, including some of the nation’s largest, have been softening their approach.

“When we can’t tell the difference between a serious problem and a non-serious problem with a kid in school, the problem is not the kid: It is us,” said Michael Gilbert, who heads the San Antonio-based National Association of Community and Restorative Justice, which advocates a focus on dialogue instead of punishments.

This year, Connecticut limited out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students up through the second grade, Texas decriminalized truancy and Oregon limited when suspensions and expulsions can be applied to students up through the fifth grade.

Last year, the Obama administration asked schools to abandon policies that send kids to court, issuing guidelines encouraging training school personnel in conflict resolution.

Denver Public Schools started implementing a so-called restorative discipline program in 2008. District leaders were concerned about the high number of suspensions and expulsions, which the grassroots group Padres & Jovenes Unidos pointed out were being disproportionately used to punish minority students.

One such student, Margarita Atencio, said her Denver school suspended her in seventh grade — before the new policies were fully in place — after other girls beat her up and blamed her for the incident. When she returned, she couldn’t concentrate on her studies because she was afraid it would happen again. It did, and this time she was expelled, she said.

“I thought since nobody was on my side that nobody cared about me really,” said Atencio, who had to repeat the seventh grade. Now 19 and a recent high school graduate, she has volunteered as a youth leader for Padres & Jovenes Unidos for three years.

Outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last month that suspensions and expulsions “track too closely with race and class.”

“This is not just about explicit, obvious bias. Indeed, sometimes, when a genuinely transparent moment of bias arises, the whole country stops and takes a break. A child holds a clock. And we see a bomb,” he said. “But more often, it’s far subtler stuff.”

The school district has declined to explain its handling of the incident, citing student privacy laws.


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