On Monday, September 14, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed went to school with a holographic pencil case. Inside that was a digital clock he’d built himself. It was fairly crude, and by his own admission, he’d only built it in about 20 minutes from spare parts he had around the house. He’d just started high school a few weeks ago and was looking for a way to stand out to his engineer teacher and signal to him what his middle school teachers already knew: he was a smart kid with a passion for electronics. Instead, he got pulled from class, interrogated by five police officers, arrested, and sent to a juvenile detention center. Why? Because everyone thought he had made a bomb even though he repeatedly said he had not.
Unfortunately, violence in schools is not uncommon in this country with the most recent school shooting occurring just Monday, September 16 at Delta State University, resulting in two deaths. So it’s understandable that, if a student brings a weird device to school, administrators will want to look into it. What’s not understandable is how the MacArthur High School/Irving Independent School District in Irving, Texas handled it. Instead of pulling Ahmed aside and talking with him, they ambushed him with five police officers, interrogating him and refusing to let him call his parents even though he’s a minor. They insisted he had been trying to make a bomb even though he had not and never alleged that he had. They led him out of the school in handcuffs, which was grossly inappropriate for a boy who had done nothing wrong. They sent him to a juvenile detention center and processed him – all without even letting him speak to his parents. And then they suspended him for three days.
A more measured and reasonable response would have involved confiscating the device, speaking with him one-on-one, and informing him of how his actions could be misconstrued (as they were). It would have been a teaching moment to let Ahmed know that while everyone valued his intellect and drive, schools had to be careful with security and the safety of everyone and, in the future, if he wanted to bring a homemade invention, he should come to the office first and get a pass confirming that it was just an experiment. That is what should have happened if this was simply a case of needing to be careful and watchful of safety.
But I don’t honestly think this is a simple case of administrators overreacting about safety. Instead, it seems like a case of administrators looking a boy with brown skin baring the name “Mohammed” and overreacting through racially and religiously-based fear. No one treated him like a normal high school boy; certainly, the principal who threatened to expel him if he didn’t write a statement wasn’t behaving normally. Kids call in bomb threats all the time and at worse get a suspension – Ahmed got hauled out in handcuffs and sent to a juvenile detention center while professing with wide-eyed innocence that he hadn’t made a bomb. His only crime was that other people got nervous – and yet he was punished for it!
It’s irresponsible and downright criminal for administrators and teachers to treat him this way, and they owe him, bare minimum, an apology. They have shown him firsthand what it’s like to be a brown, Muslim American in the US, and they’ve forever shattered his sense of safety and belonging. An apology is the least the school could do.