By now, the nation knows the story of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14 year-old science loving student arrested at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas for bringing in a homemade clock that school officials and the police assumed was a bomb. These nefarious assumptions about Ahmed, a Muslim and a child of immigrants, and his project directly resulted from stereotypes about his religion and ethnicity. What is most shocking about this story is not just the injustice of it, but in fact, how common Ahmed’s story is. 

While the actions of the educators and administrators at MacArthur are indefensible, Ahmed’s ordeal is not only the result of the discriminatory actions of a few. It is also due to the systemic criminalization of our schools, the creation of the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate impact those policies have on students of color. 

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In an attempt to discipline students who disrupt the classroom or school environment, schools have created a culture of intolerance – one that removes children from school altogether and places them in the criminal justice system. Across the country, schools use this treatment disproportionately for black and brown students, often at-risk youth who would benefit from interventions like counseling, not criminalization. These policies not only discourage children like Ahmed from pursuing innovative science projects – they exclude children from academic experiences and create prison-like environments where police officers are prominent fixtures in schools.  

The current system rewards school leaders for treating minor infractions as causes for suspensions, detentions, expulsions and even arrests. Our federal government currently invests $250 million in school police across the country. Three million students are suspended or expelled from schools every year –the vast majority are students of color, with rates for black students three times higher than those of white students. In 2012, school discipline measures resulted in every six in 1,000 students facing police. More than 70 percent of students referred to police are Latino or black. 

Ahmed is just one of many students discriminated against and punished for an innocent act. In 2013, Florida’s Kiera Wilmot, a black 16 year-old with no history of disciplinary problems, was arrested at school for a botched science experiment. She spent the rest of her year in an alternative school for troubled youth and was charged with two felonies. Twelve year old Miranda Washinawatok, a Native American student in Wisconsin, was suspended from her school’s basketball team in 2012 simply for speaking in her native language at school. Adrionna Harris, a black sixth-grader in Virginia, was suspended in 2014 for stopping a classmate from cutting herself with a razor. And Briana Popour, an LGBT student at South Carolina’s Chesnee High School, was suspended only a week ago for wearing a t-shirt expressing her identity. 

To solve the rampant discrimination built into our school discipline policies, we must go to the root cause: federal funding. We need to reduce the large sums of money that encourage harsh discipline, policing and militarism and use that money instead to fund programs that support kids and keep them engaged in the educational process.  

The options for positive programs are vast – from academic advising and more innovative learning experiences to mental health awareness and restorative justice. The strongest of these options engage the communities in determining which programs can most effectively support the children in their schools.  

We must train teachers and administrators to undo the archaic, discriminatory school discipline policies that are hurting students, and remove the bias and fear from the process. And we must get police officers out of schools to make sure they’re a place where kids feel safe, not criminalized. 

The injustice of MacArthur High Schools’ treatment of Ahmed cannot be undone. But in the days since, the nation has heard Ahmed’s story and seen his potential. He’s been invited to the White House, Facebook Headquarters and space camp. Ahmed’s future is bright.  

But as we celebrate how the country has rallied to say #IStandwithAhmed, we cannot afford to turn away from the inherent problems of the system that led to an innocent ninth-grader being arrested. When we shift federal funding to support healthy educational environments instead of harsh criminalization of children, we’ll begin to build an America where all students can learn freely and live openly without fear of discrimination, unfair treatment and arrest.

Stith is a founding member and the national coordinator for the Alliance for Educational Justice, a national network of intergenerational and youth-led organizations working to end the school-to-prison pipeline.