See previous 74 interviews: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and current U.S. Senator and education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander. Full archive here.
When 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested and suspended from school last year for showing his teacher a homemade clock, which officials called a “hoax bomb,” he instantly became a leading voice in the national debate around school discipline.
Across the country, black students, like Mohamed, are disproportionately suspended. In the 2013–14 school year, in fact, black students were 3.8 times
as likely as their white peers to be sent home, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This disparate discipline exists even after other variables, such as the frequency with which students break school rules, were factored out, according to a recent study
that analyzed millions of school and juvenile justice records in Texas.
Last week, Mohamed sued his former school district, in Irving, Texas, arguing in a data-heavy court filing that disparate school discipline led to his arrest and suspension. Yesterday we crunched the numbers behind his lawsuit, which aim to prove that Irving Independent School District is biased against black students when issuing suspensions. (Click here to see the charts and read the full story
Shortly after the feature published Tuesday, Mohamed’s attorney reached out to make her client available to talk in greater detail about the lawsuit, the data and how his life has changed since he made national headlines last year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
The 74: How is your summer going?
Ahmed Mohamed: So far I like it. I came from Qatar. I visited my family, got to see them again, and I’m happy about that.
Did you miss your family when you were away in Qatar for the school year?
Yeah, I missed them, of course.
I read through your lawsuit. What do you ultimately hope to accomplish?
First of all, I’m not suing just for me. Because there’s lots of kids out there, and I really want to point out to people who supported me in this case, and people who supported me when I got arrested — it’s to show that if I would [not have received] support like that, I would be in jail right now, and there’s many kids out there who don’t have the same support I have, and they [face] injustice and they’re in jail and they’re serving time.
They never did anything wrong, and I want to stand for that.
When you were in school in Irving, did other kids have similar experiences to yours?
Of course, there are other kids like me who were getting suspended, but I couldn’t do anything about it, because I had no power in that realm.
But now I have social power. I can influence people, and with this lawsuit, my main goal is to help kids who can’t help themselves.
What do you think about disparate disciplinary practices across the country? It’s not unique to Irving schools that African-American students are suspended at a higher rate than their white peers.
Another point that I’m [highlighting with] this lawsuit is that it’s not just for Irving ISD. It’s to show the entire world that you can stand for what’s right if you feel you’ve been wrongfully arrested or wrongfully been given a consequence.
I’m suing to show those people who are doing wrong, to show them that we will stand up for each other. All these kids are getting injustice, and I hope that with this lawsuit I can influence them to stand up for themselves, and hopefully I will be there for them.
How was your school experience after you moved to Qatar and didn’t go to school in Texas anymore?
It’s good. Really, I like it.
Is there anything that is different about that school environment that you didn’t experience in the United States?
Over there, there wasn’t as much discrimination going on in schools. I never experienced any of that over there, and it’s a country that’s filled with people who are the same religion as I am, and also, I get to study my religion while also going to school. Not saying I couldn’t do it over here, but over here it’s much harder to study Islam; over there, it’s a school topic that you can choose as an elective, and I chose that.
Another thing that’s different about growing up in the U.S. is that [with me] being Muslim, people used to always call me names, you know — I was ‘Bacon Boy,’ ‘Sausage Boy.’ They used to name me all of these different things because in Islam you can’t eat pork, and saying that to me, it’s not welcoming, because they knew that I couldn’t eat those things, but they still called me names like Sausage Boy and Son of bin Laden.
Growing up Muslim in America, it’s been very hard since there’s more racial tension and more religious tension, and there’s all these things happening. Since I’m black, Muslim, and Arab, it’s like whoever suspended me would be very happy because they feel like they got the jackpot. They feel like, ‘I have power here,’ and they just want to manipulate children, and they give them wrongful consequences.
When the police dropped the charges, it wasn’t because they were sorry. It was because if they didn’t drop the charges, they would get backlash from social media.
What did you do with the clock?
The clock is with my lawyer.
Is there anything you think that the school district should do differently in regards to its school discipline policy, that would make it more fair for kids like you?
I believe that school officials should get more training, because right now they’re very racist and very closed-minded, and I believe that if a person should be in that position of power, that person should have a license and should be taught how to do it properly.
For example, the police knew it wasn’t a bomb, but they weren’t properly trained. When you’re a police officer or you’re someone in power, you sign an oath to do what’s right, and to bring justice. But for me, all I had was injustice. So I believe people should be trained before they are given that power.
You have a few years to go, but what would you like to do — after this experience, you have a really large platform — what do you hope to do as a career once you graduate from high school and go to college?
For the most part, now that this arrest has shined some light on me, I think I want to be a civil rights leader, and also be an engineer at the same time. I want to be the Martin Luther King of this generation.
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