Needed: Better approaches to balancing student safety with typical adolescent boundary-pushing.
A Texas teen made news when the clock he brought to school was mistaken for a bomb. When I first heard this story of Ahmed Mohamed’s suspension for the crime of science interest, I thought of two of my own former male students.
The two boys were friends. Jack was quiet; Thomas was talkative. Jack rarely did homework; Thomas almost always turned his in on time, accompanied by handwritten or verbal commentary on why this particular assignment was unnecessary, or suggestions for improvement. Sarcasm, which I generally enjoy, so Thomas’s little quips found a mostly receptive audience in me.
A few months into the school year, our administration found a bomb threat written on a bathroom wall of the boys’ restroom. Procedural dictate took over. We followed lockdown drill practice, and escorted our students outside to wait. The police came. The bomb-sniffing dogs came. The school was thoroughly searched and eventually declared safe.
By then, we had lost an entire school day, and caused hundreds of parents needless trauma. I remember the cars lining the street, everyone barred from entering school property. It was harrowing.
The administration may have felt embarrassment over its handling of the situation, or perhaps they received one too many irate parent phone calls. Maybe they really were distraught at the loss of an instructional day, or worried about copycats. Whatever the case, the powers that were – at our school and district level – vowed to discover the threat writer and dole out justice.
They didn’t have to wait long.
Thomas went to speak to the principal, personally, claiming he had a credible tip on the unknown perpetrator. I don’t know exactly what he said in that meeting, but I do know his attempt at deflecting blame led (predictably) to the discovery that it was Thomas himself who had scribbled that empty threat, with the help and knowledge of Jack.
Here’s how events transpired from there:
- Jack and Thomas were arrested
- Jack and Thomas spent at least one night in juvenile detention
- Jack and Thomas were promptly expelled, and not just from the school; they were expelled permanently from the district
- Jack and Thomas were compelled to come before the school board and personally apologize.
I was surprised, though perhaps not entirely shocked, that it had been these two behind the ill-conceived prank. That it was indeed a prank, with no bomb and no evidence that any bombs were in the making, was not a shock either. Thomas and Jack could both be restless in class, at times even edgy. But they did not seem remotely criminal.
What did shock me was the swiftness and severity of their punishment.
This past week, I once again found myself wondering how schools should balance their top priority – protecting students – with the inevitable mischief adolescents will get up to.
I read of a group of 5th graders, said to be mostly girls, caught planning on detonating a bomb at a school assembly.
5th grade girls.
What a world.
That new evidence proves the homemade device never posed any threat is hardly consolation. These kids had a written plan, and were dedicated to the notion of inflicting severe bodily harm on an older student.
The students in question are now required to attend mandatory counseling before returning to school.
Maybe that’s just the difference between Texas and New Jersey.
Or is that the difference between boys and girls?
That no one should have to worry about physical harm when attending public school goes without saying.
But the world is rarely as it should be.
Dealing with the threat of youth violence is a reality for administrators and teachers. So what’s the most effective way to do deter violence and protect students that still maintains the right perspective on the reality of young people?
The answer needs to start with recognizing that teenagers lack the context we adults have. Explaining the past, and why consequences for certain pranks are so severe, seems a good place to start. Knowing an expulsion preceded by jail time will follow even empty threats of violence would probably deter at least some young people from shenanigans.
But what to do about 5th graders bent on real violence?
I don’t know.