One time in seventh grade, I sought help from my school's guidance counselor.
My mom used to pick me up after school, and I waited in front of the building with a few other students. One of my peers took this opportunity daily to inform me that my mother was a "raghead." She covered her hair and wore hijab as an expression of her faith. This wasn't always well-tolerated in the suburban Houston community where I was raised.
My classmate clearly had a problem with it. I tried ignoring him, but he was persistent.
I got tired of hearing him abuse my mother, but I didn't dare tell my parents what was happening. I finally approached the counselor, Mr. Clark, and told him that Jordan kept calling my mother a raghead.
I will never forget his response.
He said, "Asha" (he could never pronounce my name correctly), "there are going to be people in this world who aren't going to like you for who you are. That's just the way it's going to be."
That was the extent of his involvement in the matter.
Jordan kept calling my mom names whenever he saw me, and I kept trying to ignore him.
I don't suppose my experience was very different from countless other students who may have been brown or black or disabled or fat or a target in any other way. And Mr. Clark spoke a lot of truth in what he told me. It was an important lesson, although I didn't need to be harassed every day after school to have learned it.
Times have changed in the intervening decades, and adults in schools today would take a dimmer view of a student using slurs to taunt someone. But in some ways, the environment seems more pernicious now than it did when my fellow parents and I were growing up, at the mercy of our peers.
School officials may have cracked down on bullying, but they've enshrined their own biases in "no-tolerance policies" and "security concerns" that disproportionately target minority and poor students.
Tia Stevens, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, said that by age 18, about 18 percent of youth have been arrested at least once.
For black youth, that goes up to more than a quarter, she said.
But is that an expression of minorities getting involved in more suspect behavior? I asked.
"If you look at official data, such as arrests and court appearances, you see disparities among races," she said. But if you look at self-reported data by youth about the frequency at which they commit certain crimes, the differences are very slight, she said.
"What that means is, there are other things happening that influence the risk of arrest and involvement in the criminal justice system," she explained. "Many schools become feeders into the criminal justice system."
Her research made me consider the case of the now-famous freshman from MacArthur High School who was arrested and suspended for bringing a homemade clock to school. Ahmed Mohamed has since withdrawn from the Irving, Texas school that suspended him. The backlash to his arrest included invitations to the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, the top engineering schools in the country and the White House.
The vast majority of the world questioned whether teachers would have treated a student of another race or religion the same way with an item they clearly deemed right away wasn't dangerous, and one they admit was never presented as anything other than a clock.
No teacher, principal or police officer who encountered Ahmed's clock was scared of it -- consider that the bomb squad was never called, nor was the school evacuated or the clock isolated. And Ahmed never tried to pass it off as a threat. So did he still need to be arrested and suspended? Without his parents ever being called?
"Sadly, I didn't find it surprising," Stevens said. "He fits a common pattern we're seeing across the country."
While the rest of the country stood with Ahmed, there was a doubling down in Irving on what was perceived as bigotry. The principal defended the teachers and himself. The police chief defended the officers. The mayor defended the school officials and police.
They defended a zero-tolerance system that criminalizes noncriminal behavior. A system that allows schools to suspend students for bringing items they never intended to use as weapons -- a butter knife, a science project.
I wonder how it would have impacted me if Mr. Clark, my guidance counselor, had listened to my concerns and said, "But why does your mother wear that scarf, anyway? Perhaps Jordan is right."
Thankfully, that's not what he did. Even his non-intervention more than 20 years ago showed more common sense and compassion than Texas school officials did with Ahmed.
Perhaps they should consider how they would have responded to their own child, wearing a NASA shirt, bringing a project to school to impress his teacher. How many teachers and principals would defend seeing their own child led away in handcuffs for the same action?
You don't need to consult a bullying policy to know the answer.
You need to consult your conscience.