Unless you were on an Internet and media blackout this week, you heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old high school student in Irving, Texas whose homemade clock got him detained by police and suspended from school for making a “hoax bomb.” Young Mr. Mohamed is an avid tinkerer and builder who is frequently photographed in a NASA t-shirt and whose fondest wish is apparently to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his clock was one of his many home projects which he wished to share with his engineering teacher. Unfortunately, another of Mr. Mohamed’s teachers was suspicious of the clock, failing to understand that wires, circuit boards, and LED displays do not explode, called in administrators who called in police, and the result was Mr. Mohamed finding himself detained in handcuffs and then suspended from school:
Unfortunately, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne openly defended both the school and the police, and actually voiced concern that the incident could deter police from investigating potential threats instead of showing the least concern that bright and inquisitive student inventors are already deterred from letting anyone know they love science and inventing. Then again, Mayor Van Duyne is known for campaigning against imaginary threats of Sharia law, so we should not expect much.
The chief of police in Irving, Larry Boyd, also defended his officers, even while admitting that they determined quickly that the clock was not a bomb. Given that information, Mr. Mohamed’s detention and suspension are even more outrageous, and the insistence of authorities that those actions were justified because they believed the clock was a “hoax bomb” looks like a pathetically thin cover for a series of prejudiced assumptions. Mr. Mohamed never said that his clock was a bomb and demonstrated no interest in trying to trick people into thinking it was a bomb. The school obviously concluded it was not a bomb very quickly since they took no actions to get students to safety. To believe the “logic” of school officials and the Irving police, you have to believe that the word “hoax” requires only the ignorant assumptions of others rather than any intention to deceive on the part of the accused.
From one perspective, Mr. Mohamed’s misfortune has yielded some positive results. As his story circulated, he gained positive feedback from national leaders and figures in technology and innovations. President Obama’s twitter feed issued an invitation to take the clock to the White House:
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave Mr. Mohamed a standing offer to visit the company headquarters and meet him:
As did Google:
He got a shout out from NASA:
And, perhaps the icing on the cake, an astrophysics professor from MIT invited the young inventor to visit the campus, and said he was the kind of student the institution likes.
So – there’s a bit of lemonade from this.
Which is good because it is disgraceful that it came to a point where any of us have heard of Ahmed Mohamed. Instead of being given the kudos and encouragement he deserved from those who knew him and were entrusted with his well being, he was humiliated and punished for nothing more than being a curious and inventive student. Assume for a moment, that his English teacher’s confusion and suspicion of the clock was justified. I don’t actually want to because it betrays a really staggering amount of STEM illiteracy to look at an LED display, a circuit board, some wiring, and a plug for a wall outlet…
…and fail to conclude that it is safe. But fine, assume the English teacher was not reacting out of absurd and prejudiced impulses. The entire issue could have been settled in less than a minute with the following conversation:
English Teacher: “Hi, Ahmed. What’s that thing that beeped?”
Ahmed: “Oh, it’s a clock I made at home and brought to show my engineering teacher.”
English Teacher: “You made a clock at home? Yourself?”
English Teacher: “That’s pretty cool! Can you show us how it works? Then maybe make sure it doesn’t interrupt class again, please?”
There, done. “Problem” solved. No national story, here. Just a kid getting an appropriate level of recognition for doing something cool. Instead, the sequence of events went like this: His English teacher KEPT the clock (despite claiming it looked like a bomb), Mr. Mohamed was pulled out of a later period by the principal and a police officer, he was queried about trying to make a bomb whereupon he repeated that he had made a clock, taken from school to the police station, handcuffed, fingerprinted, questioned without his parents where he said his last name was brought up repeatedly, and accused of bringing a “hoax bomb” to school with three teachers listed as complainants. The police claimed that Mr. Mohamed was being “passive aggressive” with them, and claimed “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only say it was a clock. He didn’t offer any explanation as to what it was for, why he created this device, why he brought it to school.”
Here’s a little explanation for the officers: It’s a clock. It tells time. If Mr. Mohamed made a clock and would “only say it was a clock” it is probably because it. is. a. clock.
Look, running a school is a difficult and uncertain business, constantly fraught with circumstances you never expected. One of my favorite stories illustrating how hard it is to be school principal is from some years back when an elementary school in Montana had to make a new rule for show and tell after a student’s mother brought a dead bat in a shoe box — and 90 kids had to get rabies shots. Imagine the poor school principal having to revamp the school rules in the wake of that. The school probably had anticipated various things not appropriate for show and tell, but I am betting nobody had ever thought of a “please do not bring in diseased infested carrion you found in your barn”. That’s the sort of thing that makes running a school and a classroom so unusual – you can think of every possible circumstance imaginable, but 25 kids and their parents and guardians can almost always confound your imagination.
So schools are charged with keeping everyone safe within their walls, and we live in an age where schools have tried to respond to real and imagined threats with especially harsh rules that have ugly consequences. But what happened to Ahmed Mohamed had nothing to do with keeping the school safe. His teacher suggested the clock looked like a bomb despite what he told her, but she kept it instead of immediately evacuating the classroom. Mr. Mohamed was questioned by the principal and the police that the administration had summoned without asking for a bomb disposal specialist. Mr. Mohamed repeatedly said to his teacher, to the administration, and to the police that he had made a clock, and yet he was finally accused of making a “hoax bomb” despite trying to to tell everyone and anyone who would listen that it was a clock – which it is – making the “hoax” accusation laughable.
At every stage of this disaster, the adults who had authority over Ahmed Mohamed and who had professional and ethical obligations to care for his rights and well being could have stepped back and stopped, but they did not.
It is impossible to escape looking at the very real likelihood that he was suspected of mischief because of prejudice against his name and his religion. None of the adults gave him the benefit of the doubt, and even though they had to have quickly concluded that the clock was entirely safe, they still could not entertain the notion that he had made it and brought it to school for the understandable reason that he wanted to show off what he could do for a teacher he hoped to impress. Instead of backing off, they doubled down on their initial errors, compounding them with new ones. Instead of acting to keep their students safe, they invented an entirely bogus reason to justify their initial prejudice, and violated the rights and trust of a young man who ought to have impressed them.
Teachers and administrators are not perfect people. We have prejudices and irrational impulses, and it is impossible to banish all of them from our actions every single day. But it is absolutely vital to pause and check yourself. Ahmed Mohamed’s English teacher could have settled this with a simple and quick conversation. If that teacher insisted on clearing that impression with an administrator, that person should have quickly recognized the innocuous nature of the clock and returned it. At worst, the principal could have had a simple conversation with the young man and logically understood that when someone keeps calling a clock a clock, it is ridiculous to assume he intends to trick people into thinking it is a bomb. Ideally, the educators involved should have been embarrassed by their initial assumptions and fears and what spawned them, but at a minimum, they should have recognized their responsibility to Ahmed Mohamed as soon as it was obvious that he had a clock.
Unchecked prejudices lead to unfounded fears, and in this case, they led to far worse. Every teacher has to be aware of her or his personal flaws and prejudices, and has to constantly check her or his actions against them to strive for fair and ethical treatment of every student. Nobody did that for Ahmed Mohamed.