A high school student in Texas whose hobby is inventing thought he had a great idea for a project: to build his own clock.
The effort landed him in handcuffs and juvenile detention Monday, accused of making a hoax bomb.
The detention of Ahmed Mohamed, 14, a student at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, near Dallas, generated a national furor even after the police said Wednesday that he would not be charged as questions arose about whether he was targeted because of his religion.
The episode even came to the attention of the nation’s top leaders, who deplored the treatment of the young man. “Cool clock, Ahmed,” President Obama said on Twitter. “Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”
Obama’s staff went on to invite Ahmed to come to the White House for Astronomy Night, to be held Oct. 19, an event bringing together scientists, engineers, astronauts, teachers, and students to spend an evening stargazing from the South Lawn.
The president’s spokesman held out the encounter as a case study in unreasoned prejudice in an era when the country is fighting Islamic terrorism at home and in the Middle East.
“This episode is a good illustration of how pernicious stereotypes can prevent even good-hearted people who have dedicated their lives to educating young people from doing the good work that they set out to do,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.
Careful not to appear to be bashing teachers just two days after Obama chastised Republicans for doing so, Earnest nonetheless said, “In this instance, it’s clear that at least some of Ahmed’s teachers failed him. That’s too bad, but it’s not too late for all of us to use this as a teachable moment and to search our own conscience for biases in whatever form they take.”
The episode provoked widespread discussion about bias and improper police conduct toward a nonwhite, Muslim student of Sudanese heritage who happens to have a love of tinkering.
“It would not have occurred if he did not have a Muslim name and have a heritage from the Muslim world,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling it a symptom “of the growing Islamophobia in our nation.”
Ahmed said he brought the clock, which he had fashioned with a digital face in an inexpensive box, to school Monday to show to an engineering teacher, who said it was nice but then told him that he should not show the invention to other teachers.
But when it beeped during an English class, Ahmed revealed the device to his English teacher, according to an account in The Dallas Morning News. “She was like, it looks like a bomb,” he said.
In a video posted on the newspaper’s website, Ahmed described how he was eventually taken from school by the police. “They took me to a room filled with five officers,” he said. “They interrogated me, and searched through my stuff and took my tablet and my invention.”
He said he was fingerprinted, and mug shots were taken at a juvenile detention center. He was not allowed to call his parents but was released when they came to get him.
The clock had a digital display, built into a metal case with a circuit board.
On Wednesday, the Irving police chief, Larry Boyd, said the police were justified in detaining the teenager based on the information they had at the time, when initially it was “not immediately evident that it was the experiment.”
But the chief said in a news conference that the police were not pursuing charges.
“We have no evidence to support that there was an intention to create an alarm,” he said. He said the situation could be challenging as the police try to work on relations with Muslims and other communities.
Asked whether the police would have reacted differently if Ahmed had been white, Boyd said they would have followed the same procedures. “You can’t take things like that to school,” he said.
Ahmed said the clock itself was housed in a box you could get at Target for $5 or $10, but the officers accused him of making a “movie bomb” or a hoax device made to look like a bomb.
“It made me feel like a criminal,” he said. He was suspended for three days.
The Irving Independent School District said in a statement Wednesday that the information released to the public about the incident was unbalanced, but officials said they could not comment further because of federal student privacy law.
The school district said it would release more information about the case if Ahmed’s family consented in writing.
In the meantime, it would continue to handle the case in accordance with the district’s student code of conduct.
Below is a sampling of tweets about Mohamed:
Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great.— President Obama (@POTUS44) September 16, 2015