A Sudanese-American boy named Ahmed Mohamed was arrested on Monday in Irving, Tex. after a bringing a digital clock he had built to school. Educators and law enforcement officers thought the clock, which consisted of a display, a circuit board and some wiring, was a bomb.
Mohamed's creation was confiscated, and he was eventually led into a room where several police officers were waiting, Avi Selk reported for The Dallas Morning News. "Yup. That's who I thought it was," the dark-skinned Mohamed, 14, recalled one of the officers saying.
Still wearing his NASA t-shirt, Mohamed was taken to a juvenile detention facility in handcuffs, where he was released to his parents after being fingerprinted.
Mohamed hasn't yet been charged with a crime, but research suggests that relatively well-behaved students of color are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than white students who make trouble frequently. Advocates of juvenile-justice reform say Mohamed's case is typical, and that school authorities often assume the worst of students who belong to racial and ethnic minorities.
"Youth of color are not given the benefit of the doubt. The presumption of innocence is just not there for them and certainly wasn't there for him in this case," said Thena Robinson-Mock, an attorney who has represented young people in juvenile cases in Louisiana. "In my opinion, had Ahmed been a white student, this would not have happened to him."
A recent study found that white students who told surveyors they had committed 40 crimes in the past year were about as likely to be imprisoned as black and Hispanic students who reported committing just five offenses.
Robinson-Mock said those disparities aren't only present in juvenile court, but also in school discipline, in which educators are more likely to apply vague definitions such as "defiance" and "disobedience" to students of color than to white students.
"When you unpack what kids are getting suspended and arrested for, when you take the time to find out what happened, it's often something pretty ridiculous," Robinson-Mock said.
Ahmed has been suspended for three days. What might have looked like a computer science project in the hands of another student looked like a threat to authorities at MacArthur High School.
Discipline has become more severe and law enforcement more stringent in American schools. The study on rates of imprisonment also found that students have become less likely to commit crimes, but they are just as likely to be charged -- and if they are, they are treated more harshly by the juvenile system.
Research suggests that discipline and juvenile justice can be counterproductive, possibly making students more likely to misbehave in the future. Advocates worry that taking a children out their classes for a few days makes it difficult for him or her to keep up with the rest of the class, and can change their perception of themselves in relation to figures of authority.
Compared to their classmates who are otherwise like them, students are more likely to become delinquent and to be arrested again after initial contact with the police. Students who have a criminal record have a smaller chance of graduating from high school and college.