On Tuesday, a high school freshman in Irving, Texas, was handcuffed and taken to juvenile detention because he brought a homemade digital clock to school. The ninth-grader’s teachers took one look at him, a brown Muslim kid with the name “Ahmed Mohamed,” and his homemade clock, which the high school principal said “looks like a movie bomb to me,” and assumed “terrorist.” Because of course they did.
According to Avi Selk, writing for the Dallas Morning News, Mohamed is a bit of a wunderkind who enjoys building go-karts and radios in his free time. A robotics enthusiast in middle school, Mohamed decided to show his teachers at his new school what he was a capable of, reported Selk. So on Sunday night, Mohamed spent 20 minutes building a digital clock: “a circuit board and power supply wired to a digital display, all strapped inside a case with a tiger hologram on the front.”
Mohamed showed his invention to his engineering teacher who, rather than praising the boy for his ingenuity and desire to learn, suggested that he keep his invention hidden. “Brown kid with a Muslim name and something that ticks? Eek!” is probably what the engineering teacher thought.
But Mohamed was unable to keep his project hidden. The alarm on his clock went off during English class and when he showed his creation to his English teacher, his teacher told him it looked like a bomb.
“It doesn’t look like a bomb to me,” he responded, according to the Dallas Morning News.
And then things got out of hand.
As Avi Selk reported, the principal and a police officer pulled Mohamed out of class and proceeded to treat him like they were in an episode of the TV show 24, circa 2003.
The teacher and the cop led Mohamed into a room where four other police officers sat waiting for him—because apparently it takes five police officers to question a kid about a bomb that’s not really a bomb but actually a clock. One of them said, “Yup! That’s who I thought it was,” according to reports, despite the fact that Mohamed claims to have never seen that cop before in his life.
The cops searched and questioned him, while the principal of the school attempted to strong-arm the boy into making a written statement (for what purpose we do not know), threatening to expel him if he refused to do so, the Dallas Morning News reported.
The cops then handcuffed him, marched him through the school while students and teachers looked on, and sent him to the juvenile detention center where his parents were able to collect him.
As a lawyer, I have several concerns here.
First, what did the cop mean when he said “That’s who I thought it was”? Is this part of some racial profiling scheme going on at the school? How would the cop know who Mohamed was? I’m picturing a panicked principal calling the local cops about a possible homemade bomb by a Muslim kid while the cops flip through dossiers on all the Black and brown students at the school. I’m not saying that’s what happened. I’m saying I have questions.
Second, according to Selk’s report for the Dallas Morning News, the bell rang at least twice while the cops searched Mohamed’s belongings and questioned him. Why was a minor interrogated for over the course of what may have been two class periods—probably at least 90 minutes, assuming a standard 45-minute class period—without a lawyer or a parent present?
Third, why did the principal reportedly try to bully this kid into signing a written statement? What purpose would that have served? Was the principal trying to force Mohamed into admitting that he had built a “bomb”? Even though Mohamed kept insisting that it was a clock? There’s something really unsettling about trying to force a frightened kid to make a written statement, especially in the absence of a parent or a lawyer.
Mohamed’s story has gone viral, putting the small town of Irving, Texas, in the national spotlight as the police attempt to justify their overreaction to a high school freshman bringing a clock to school. During a press conference earlier today, Irving police chief Larry Boyd said that charges were not being brought against Mohamed, but not before releasing a photo of the clock, just so we could all get good and scared at… nothing. Ooh look! It’s a clock!
Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne said in a statement on Facebook that she doesn’t “fault the school or the police for looking into what they saw as a potential threat.”
“To the best of my knowledge, they followed protocol for investigating whether this was an attempt to bring a Hoax Bomb to a school campus,” she said.
Right. Except for the part where all the principal or the police had to do was go talk to the engineering teacher, who ostensibly would have been able to tell them that Mohamed had brought a clock, not a “hoax bomb” (whatever the hell that is), to school. Or, I don’t know, maybe the cops could have done their job and have a bomb expert look at the device and say, “Yep. It’s a clock. Not a bomb.” Surely, the police have specialists for that sort of thing.
And what sort of protocol requires handcuffing a frightened kid, perp-walking him through the halls, and removing him from school, when whether or not that kid brought a clock (it was a clock!) or a “hoax bomb” (no really, guys, it was a clock!) to school could have been determined on school grounds by one of any number of methods? If the cops really thought it was a “hoax bomb,” why wasn’t the school evacuated? Why wasn’t the bomb squad called?
Police spokesman James McLellan defended the police’s actions to the Texas Tribune, saying that arresting Mohamed was the appropriate course of action. “When we attempted to question the student about what it was, what it was for, why he brought it to school, he only said it was a clock,” McLellan said. “Not knowing what he was going to do or why he had it, with the information they had, the arrest was appropriate.”
So let me get this straight: After questioning a minor without a lawyer or parent present, the Irving police arrested the minor because they didn’t know what he was going to do with a clock that he had built to impress his engineering teacher—the same engineering teacher who likely could have confirmed that the “suspicious device” was a goddamn clock, not a bomb. There was absolutely nothing “appropriate” about the arrest, from what I can tell.
The level of failure on display in Irving, Texas—by the high school administration, the police, and the mayor—is stratospheric. Mohamed is obviously very gifted. And according to his father, all the high school student wants to do is to “invent good things for mankind.” But because his teachers viewed Mohamed through the lens of their own racism rather than doing their jobs, which are to cultivate and inspire Mohamed’s curiosity in school, he has vowed to never bring another invention to school again.
Real bang-up job, guys.
Notably, this isn’t the first time that Irving, Texas, has landed in the spotlight due to a demonstrable display of Islamophobia. Earlier this year, Mayor Van Duyne was criticized for stirring up Islamophobia when she backed a law preventing the implementation of any foreign law, which leaders in the Muslim community argued was passed in response to outrage over an Islamic tribunal opening its doors in the area. (Catholics and Orthodox Jews have similar tribunals, none of which seem to cause similar consternation. Funny, that.)
Mayor Van Duyne made several inflammatory statements for which she stalwartly refused to apologize, including accusations that the imam for the Islamic Center of Irving was creating separate laws for Muslims, and statements to Glenn Beck in an interview that the imams were “bypassing American courts.”
Seems like a fun town.
The joke appears to be on Irving, Texas, though. Ahmed Mohamed is currently a social media star. His new Twitter account has racked up more than 45,000 followers in a few short hours, there’s an outpouring of support on the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed, and everyone from Hillary Clinton to Mark Zuckerberg to President “Secret Muslim” Obama has been weighing in on social media to tell Mohamed to “keep building.” Meanwhile, outrage at Irving’s mayor and police chief is growing. (The comments on Mayor Van Duyne’s Facebook wall are almost entirely critical.)
Sometimes I really want to put this country in a time-out. I just want to march the United States into the hallway and make it sit in a chair facing the corner for about 50 to 100 years.
Just long enough for the nation to really think about why its people are so screwed up.