Let’s Assume the Kids (and Ahmed) Are Alright, Not Criminals

Last Sunday night in Irving, Texas, a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed got bored. But instead of firing up his X-Box for a few rounds of Counterstrike or checking up on his fantasy football progress, Ahmed decided to build a digital clock from scratch. He likes to tinker.

By now you’ve probably heard what happened next: When Ahmed took his masterpiece to school the next day to impress his teachers, the clock was confiscated and Ahmed was pulled out of class. He was interrogated by five different police officers. His belongings were searched. He was threatened with expulsion. He was accused over and over and over again of wanting to build a bomb, or wanting people to think he’d built a bomb. He repeatedly requested to contact his parents, and those requests were denied.

Instead, law enforcement agents handcuffed the frightened high school freshman wearing a NASA t-shirt, frog-marched him out of school, and remanded him to a juvenile detention center where they snapped mug shots and took his fingerprints. The school suspended Ahmed for three days, and until the story went viral, police were considering charges.

How could this have happened?

The first and most obvious answer is racism and Islamophobia. Ahmed is Muslim, and Irving has something of a checkered history with the Muslim community. In 2012, the Irving Independent School District commissioned a 72-page report to determine if its curriculum was too pro-Islam. (It wasn’t.) In a response to a local mosque setting up a mediation panel for its worshippers, earlier this year the Irving city council voted to support an anti-Islamic bill that would forbid Texas judges from applying Shariah law in their decisions (This was, of course, already the law.)

Islamophobia, and probably racism, certainly played a role in Ahmed’s ordeal, but the fact is overzealous administrators, zero-tolerance policies, and law enforcement officers ill-equipped to deal with schoolchildren have compromised educational environments throughout the country.

If we’re handcuffing autistic children at the elbows or throwing them in jail overnight, then we’re failing them. If we’re hitting kids with felony weapons charges for bringing fishing tackle to school, then we’re failing them. And if we’re using suspensions (which absolutely do not work) against students who build clocks, or twirl pencils, or write about pot, or chew their Pop-Tarts into the shape of a gun, then we’re failing them.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is currently developing a specialized police-training program for officers who work in our schools. The sooner, the better. Officers need to understand that they’re dealing with children rather than criminals. They need to ensure that a child’s right to contact their parents is as sacrosanct as any other individual’s right to speak to an attorney. And above all, they need to undertake a comprehensive review of their racial-profiling practices and cultural-sensitivity training — oh yeah, and their use of handcuffs.

Ahmed suffered through a terrifying, traumatizing, and unjust ordeal. Yet because of the mass exposure of what he endured, he’s received invitations to the White House, Facebook headquarters, and the Google science fair. I’m fairly certain that Ahmed is going to come out of this just fine. He’s called it the American dream come true and for him it seems to be so.

For too many others — the ones whose stories won’t go viral — the possibility of the American nightmare remains too real.

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boss

this is bullshit I hate racsits I cannot stand

RRR

So where were you when the white kid got expelled because he chewed a pop tart into the shape of a gun? I have never seen anyone harmed by a pop tart!

Anonymous

Some of the dumbest people alive work in education. It's said that bullies go into teaching. When a kid is denied the right to speak to his own parents, the thing speaks for itself. Anyone with a brain cell would have looked at the item to see if it was a weapon. The nation turned chicken and stupid after 9/11 and has never returned to normal. Heaven forbid a kid use his head to tinker if he can spend his spare time playing useless video games. The jerks involved in this trauma to a kid should be arrested and held in contempt for for being stupid. How can anyone look in the mirror being that dumb? Maybe it doesn't bother them if they are already that clueless. Couldn't any of the police called in tell if something is dangerous? Couldn't the educated educators determine this before getting the police involved? Land of the police state and home of the cowards. As we all know, wonderful Christians never do anything wrong. Just look at the wonderful Christians Jim D. Adkisson and Scott Roeder. They were influenced by right wing media propaganda. That is the real threat to safety. Maybe people just want to live in fear, like a real life manifestation of a horror movie.

Anonymous

"Some of the dumbest people alive work in education. It's said that bullies go into teaching."

As an educator, I can make the assumption that you yourself are not involved in educating youth. And as far as it being "said that bullies go into teaching," I am not quite sure what wordsmith or author you are quoting here. I must be uneducated and unfamiliar with such talent.
As a teacher of a low income, all African-American community, I would love to correct you. No not all teachers are racist. I work with a staff of professionals who know the difference between a bomb and a clock. However, let's assume that we were unsure, I can say that there would be steps and questions asked before jumping to these conclusions.
There are "idiots" and "jerks" everywhere on this planet. What you are doing is no better than these teachers in Texas. Just because a student is Muslim, does not mean he is a terrorist. Just because a black student sags his pants, doesn't make him a threat or is destined for a jail cell. And finally, just because I am a teacher, does not make me a "bully." I stand up for equality and justice every single day in my classroom. When people say I am crazy for working with these kids, I tell them they are crazy for not. So please, keep your uneducated opinions about my profession, to yourself.

With love,

Teachers of Urban Areas

David Massengill

If the teacher and school administration thought that the clock was a bomb, why didn't they evacuate the school building for the safety of the other students? Why didn't police have bomb squad transport clock if they really believed it to be a dangerous object. They took it in their patrol car.

Anonymous

Poor little sand nigger

Anonymous

People like you are the problem here. If only the "sand niggers" you speak of held people in the same contempt for being a narcissistic white man...oh wait, seems to be clear that you are exactly that with that warped ass line of thinking...not so fun is it? So great when people talk badly about people just because of their country of origin...when all of us, including middle eastern people, who all do fall into the category of Caucasian can trace their ancestors to the same region of the world, the caucus region. We are all brothers and sisters of this Earth, start acting like it!

Steven in NC

Terri Burke writes in the first paragraph "Ahmed decided to build a digital clock from scratch." Then, in the second paragraph, it refers to the contraption as a "masterpiece."

Ahmed most certainly did NOT build a digital clock from scratch. In fact, he didn't build one at all. What he did was reminiscent of Sid from Toy Story. Ahmed removed the guts of an existing alarm clock from its recognizable plastic housing, tossed out the non-essential parts, and affixed everything else to the inside a pencil case that resembles a scaled-down briefcase. There's a hint of ingenuity involved there, I suppose, but the contraption is not exactly a serious contender for a ribbon at the science fair.

Why is it important to stop saying "he built a clock"? Because the very notion prevents us from recognizing that the real problem was not that school or police officials could not determine whether this was a bomb or the guts of a clock placed inside a pencil case. If they thought it was a bomb, they would have evacuated the school. The problem was in a post-Columbine school environment, it suffices that a student may have intended to create something that looks like an iconic briefcase bomb. In some ways like the kid who was suspended for chewing a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun, what mattered to people trying to adhere to zero-tolerance security policies were vague resemblances. Why do you think the first teacher, an engineer, suggested to Ahmed that he not show his project to others? TSA will confiscate carry-on items that they deem might *appear* to be a bomb to *other passengers.* Bring what Ahmed brought to school to a TSA screening line and you'll miss your flight, I guarantee it.

Is this a good opportunity to discuss the excess-absurdity of zero tolerance security policies? Sure. There are plenty of examples (the infamous "Pop Tart Gun" incident being just one of them) But let's stop saying Ahmed was arrested for building a clock. Because he didn't build a clock. He built something that had at least a passing resemblance to a bomb using a clock.

longeen

Right you are sir. Beside he's Muslim. In the recent times, they are known to do a lots of a bad tings that are including timing devices.

Anonymous

It seems as if you don't want to give credit to this young child who happens to be Muslim. It is obvious that someone surrounding you is lacking skills. It doesn't matter what he made or attempted to make, the situation could have still been dealt with differently. It is those with small minds, who lack vision, which results in not knowing what to do in a situation like this. The engineer made a suggestion verses having a solution. Although I truly understand protecting our country from all hurt, harm and danger, I also understand that NOT ALL people of different origins are the same, so KNOWLEDGE is important ....along with experience.

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