Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed just wanted to get noticed by his teachers. Instead, he got arrested.
In an incident that has raised allegations of racism and made a Texas school district the target of online outrage, the ninth grader was pulled out of school in handcuffs after a digital clock he built himself was mistaken for a bomb.
Mohamed, a self-assured kid with thick-framed glasses and a serious expression, had just started at MacArthur High School a few weeks ago.
The Irving, Texas, ninth grader has a talent for tinkering — he constructs his own radios and once built a bluetooth speaker as a gift for his friend — and he wanted to show his new teachers what he could do.
So on Sunday night he quickly put together a homemade digital clock (“just something small” as he casually put it to the Dallas Morning News, a circuit board and power supply connected to digital display) and proudly offered it to his engineering teacher the next day.
But the teacher looked wary.
“He was like, ‘That’s really nice,’” Mohamed told the Dallas Morning News. “‘I would advise you not to show any other teachers.’”
During English class, the clock beeped, annoying his teacher. When he brought the device up to her afterward, she told him “it looks like a bomb,” according to Mohamed.
“I told her, ‘It doesn’t look like a bomb to me,'” he told the Dallas Morning News.
But the English teacher kept the clock, and during sixth period, Mohamed was pulled out of class by the principal.
“They took me to a room filled with five officers in which they interrogated me and searched through my stuff and took my tablet and my invention,” the teen said. “They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?’ I told them no, I was trying to make a clock.”
But his questioner responded, “It looks like a movie bomb to me.”
Mohamed told NBC-Dallas Fort Worth that he was taken to police headquarters, handcuffed and fingerprinted.
I just chatted briefly with Ahmed's father & sister. They are very appreciative of everyone's support.— Anil Dash (@anildash) September 16, 2015
During questioning, officers repeatedly brought up his last name, Mohamed said. When he tried to call his father, Mohamed said he was told he couldn’t speak to his parents until after the interrogation was over.
“I really don’t think it’s fair because I brought something to school that wasn’t a threat to anyone,” Mohamed told NBC. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I just showed my teachers something and I end up being arrested later that day.”
In a statement to the TV station, Irving Independent School District spokesperson Lesley Weaver declined to discuss the case, though she confirmed that a MacArthur High School student was arrested on campus.
“We always ask our students and staff to immediately report if they observe any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior,” she wrote.
“If something is out of the ordinary, the information should be reported immediately to a school administrator and/or the police so it can be addressed right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students and keep our school community as safe as possible."
NBC-DFW reported that a police report released Tuesday cites a “hoax bomb” incident, listing three MacArthur High teachers as complainants against Mohamed.
Irving Police Officer James McLellan told that TV station that school officials were worried about the device.
“Clearly, there were disassembled clock parts in there, but he offered no more explanation than that,” McLellan said.
“A lot of these details that the family and he have provided to you were not shared with us yesterday. He was very much less than forthcoming."
McLellan told the Dallas Morning News that Mohamed never claimed the device was anything other than a clock. But school staff and police officers remained suspicious.
“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car,” McLellan said. “The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”
Mohamed’s family said that the teen has been suspended from school for three days.
Speaking to the Dallas Morning News from his Irving home, Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed blamed the incident on Islamophobia.
“He just wants to invent good things for mankind,” said the elder Mohamed, who immigrated from Sudan. “But because his name is Mohamed and because of Sept. 11, I think my son got mistreated.”
That sentiment has rippled out in their community. Muram Irbahim, a 15-year-old cousin of Mohamed’s who was part of his middle school robotics team, said Ahmed’s arrest makes her feel differently about going to school in Irving.
“It just shocked me that people could do this to him. He’s a 14-year-old boy and he’s a genius,” she told The Washington Post, recalling how her teammates used to call her younger cousin over whenever they needed help.
“I thought there’s a lot of diversity at Irving [Independent School District] and I thought that it was different from other school districts,” she said. “But I was wrong and it makes me really sad that I’m wrong.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it will be looking into the case. Attorneys for the organization, along with the Mohameds, told local TV station WFAA they plan to meet with MacArthur High School principal and the Irving police chief on Wednesday afternoon.
“I think this wouldn’t even be a question if his name wasn’t Ahmed Mohamed,” Alia Salem, CAIR’s executive director for the Dallas-Fort Worth region, told WFAA.
Meanwhile, people online and off have rallied to the teenager’s cause. By early Wednesday morning, the hashtags #IstandwithAhmed and #helpAhmedmake were trending on Twitter.
society is teaching a young mind that no matter what he goes to accomplish, people will only see the color of his skin #IStandWithAhmed— asap jen (@y0jenny) September 16, 2015
Ibrahim told The Post that she helped organize a protest at Irving schools, encouraging students to bring clocks to school in a show of solidarity.
As for Ahmed — he’s a little taken aback by all the attention, Ibrahim said. And still wrestling with the memory of handcuffs encircling his thin, 14-year-old wrists.
“It made me feel like I wasn’t human,” he said in a video interview. “It made me feel like a criminal.”
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