The recent arrest of a 14-year-old Muslim boy whose teacher mistook his homemade clock for a possible 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 Texas teen will attend an 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Ahmed's suspension — his parents have since withdrawn him from the school — reflects the rigid disciplinary policies that many U.S. schools adopted in the 1990s.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, foregoing automatic suspensions, expulsions and calls to the police for one-on-one counseling and less severe forms of punishment.
"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.
The school districts in New York, Los Angeles and Denver are just some of those that have moved away from discipline policies that relied heavily on suspensions. State governments have also been taking action: 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.
"We're seeing a lot of change at the federal, state and local level that I think is moving us in a new direction," said Russell Skiba, director of The Equity Project at Indiana University. But, he added, "There are still a lot of schools that don't have the resources or are afraid to move to something else."
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 was just done. 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.
Eldridge Greer, who runs the Denver district's Whole Child Supports program, said the school year before the policy changes began taking effect, there were about 11,500 out-of-school suspensions and 167 expulsions. He said last school year, those figures were down significantly, to about 5,400 suspensions and 55 expulsions.
Before the change, students involved in incidents like shouting matches would receive out-of-school suspensions, but nothing would be done to address their behavior, Greer said. Now, such students might meet with a school official instead to discuss the reasons for the spat and to try to address them.
Daniel Kim, director of youth organizing for Padres & Jovenes Unidos, said that while the change in school discipline policies is benefiting all students, there are still disparities in the punishment rates for minorities when compared to whites — especially for blacks.
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."
After Ahmed's arrest, the police chief said there was no evidence that he meant to cause alarm. But the school district has declined to explain its handling of the incident, citing student privacy laws. A spokeswoman has said the district could provide "a different viewpoint" if given permission by the family to release his school records.
Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA's Civil Rights Project, said his group's report looking at the most recent U.S. numbers found out-of-school suspension rates leveling off and racial gaps narrowing slightly.
Philip Carney said that three years after starting a restorative discipline program as principal of Ed White Middle School in San Antonio, out-of-school suspensions have dropped by 72 percent.
"We even got to the point where students are handling their own conflicts, now with us just observing and setting up the process," said Carney, now the restorative discipline coordinator for his school district.