As you have probably heard, 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed was taken away from school on Monday, in handcuffs, for bringing a homemade clock to school.
In the bright distant hindsight of a social media shitstorm, the teachers, the principal, the police, and everyone were to blame for misunderstanding (at best) or racial profiling and racism (at worst), and the claims of officials, as reported by the Washington Post, are seen as lame:
School officials, however, insist that their staff and police acted appropriately in investigating the device as a potential threat.
“The information that has been made public to this point has been very unbalanced,” Lesley Weaver, a spokeswoman for Irving Independent School District, said at a Wednesday news conference. “We always ask our students and staff to immediately report if they observe any suspicious items or if they observe any suspicious behavior.
Reviewing the sequence of events, roughly
- Ahmed builds a clock to show his teachers and friends the hobby he is proud of.
- He brings the clock to school, and shows his first teacher, in engineering class (wait, they have engineering class in ninth grade? Wish I had that!)
- the teacher reportedly said something like “That’s really nice, I would advise you not to show any other teachers.”
- Ahmed carries it around, and an alarm goes off in English class. The English teacher thinks the clock looks suspicious.
- Ahmed gets questioned by the school authorities, then the police, and gets taken away.
So what went wrong, and how did this young man’s awesome hobby turn out so badly for him that day?
As much as I would like to chastise the English teacher and principal, I think they probably had little choice. It would not surprise me if it were in fact law that anything suspicious must be reported, the same way we are required to report suspected abuse to children’s aid immediately. So while they may have been ignorant and fearful, it may have made no difference – if someone thought the device looked suspicious, they may have had an obligation to call the police.
Here’s the clock, by the way. Innocuous enough to anyone who has the slightest understanding of electronics. Scary as hell to anyone who doesn’t but has watched too many spy movies.
So that really leaves Ahmed himself, the Engineering teacher, and the police.
Ahmed is a 14 year old with complete first hand knowledge of the workings of his clock (and no first hand knowledge of what a bomb looks like), a project he was proud of. So while some might say he should have known it looked like a bomb, I think that in itself ascribes lost innocence to the boy. I think he can safely be exonerated, though the harsh reality has made itself known to him, and I suspect he will be overly cautious in the future. Sadly.
The Engineering teacher apparently recognized it for what it was, and also recognized that other teachers may not. Since that teacher did not report the clock as suspicious, he clearly knew it was safe, but did warn Ahmed that others might find it suspicious. But this is where, as a teacher, I find there was a missed opportunity. If he knew it might be considered suspicious, and knew that suspicious objects could get Ahmed in trouble, he could have done something about it. Something such as “Hey, you know what? this case makes it look sinister to people who don’t know about this stuff. Why don’t you let me look after it for now so it doesn’t cause any trouble, and you can pick it up after school.” Or even better: “”Hey, you know what? this case makes it look sinister to people who don’t know about this stuff. Why don’t you let me look after it for now and later we can make a cooler case for it later on.”
That leaves the police. Were any of the police members of the bomb squad? Did any of them know what a bomb actually looks like, or have any training in electronics? Probably not. So they arrive to find a device that someone was suspicious of, and they did what they do (when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail), which is apply pressure to “suspects” to try to elicit a confession. They overstepped their authority when they failed to let him call his father, unless they too are under very specific guidelines to treat any “perceived terrorist threat” with patriot act -like authority.
So it is really hard to lay heavy blame in any one place. The first teacher could have been more helpful, and the police could have been less heavy handed (much, much less). The principal could have called the father, and could have been more supportive. Racism, whether overt or subconscious, most likely played a role, and that is in part (or largely) due to the relentless news coverage of “The War on Terror” and the resulting heightened fear.
The whole sequence was a tragedy of errors, and could (should) have been mitigated or stopped at many points by someone doing more than “just following orders”, but sadly was not.
I just hope that Ahmed continues to follow his dreams, and make fabulous things. I hope more people become aware that kids can make fabulous things that aren’t scary, and that this brings a little more awareness of issues of racial profiling and police behaviour, particularly towards children in our schools.
You go Ahmed! Keep making cool stuff!
There is an entrenched, legislated fear response, fueled by constant reminders of “War on Terror” and “See something, say something”. At every level the guidelines are essentially, “if you see something suspicious, report it to your superior”. So the slightest little suspicion automatically gets passed up the line, up the line up the line again until the police are called, and since it is a “suspicion of terrorism” the police are already on a heightened alertness, and operating under an assumption that they are being called because of a legitimate threat.
Checks and balances people, we need checks and balances.