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editorial

Ahmed Mohamed and the absurdities of zero-tolerance

Ahmed Mohamed gestured as he arrived to his family’s home in Irving, Texas. The 14-year-old was arrested last week after a teacher thought a homemade clock Mohamed brought to school was a bomb.
Ahmed Mohamed gestured as he arrived to his family’s home in Irving, Texas. The 14-year-old was arrested last week after a teacher thought a homemade clock Mohamed brought to school was a bomb.(Lm otero/ap)

From Irving, Texas, last week came the latest jaw-dropping instance of a public school succumbing to zero-tolerance security hysteria.

Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old with an interest in technology, built a harmless electronic clock and brought it to class to show his engineering teacher at MacArthur High School. But when the contraption beeped during English class, nervous school officials called the police, who handcuffed, arrested, and fingerprinted the ninth grader. Ahmed’s clock was confiscated and he was suspended from school for three days. On Tuesday, the principal sent a letter to parents stating that police had “responded to a suspicious-looking item” but had ascertained that “the item . . . did not pose a threat” to anyone’s safety.

It didn’t take long for Ahmed’s story to go viral, complete with a Twitter hashtag — #IStandWithAhmed — and fueled by unsubstantiated charges of bigotry. Ahmed’s father, an immigrant from Sudan, speculated that his son was mistreated because of his name, and the chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party issued a statement attributing the teen’s arrest “to Islamophobia in Irving.”

But there is no need to search for such malicious motives. Ahmed is not the first kid to find himself in trouble because authorities saw something perfectly harmless, deemed it a security threat, and hit the panic button. Indeed, such cases are legion.

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In South Carolina last year, a 16-year-old was arrested, searched, and handcuffed after completing a creative-writing assignment in which he described buying a gun to shoot a dinosaur. The Washington Post reported in 2013 on similarly ludicrous examples, such as the second-grader in Anne Arundel County, Md., who was suspended from school for two days for nibbling a strawberry Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and saying, “Bang, bang.” In Pennsylvania, a 5-year-old was suspended from kindergarten because of a “terroristic threat” — she talked about shooting her “Hello Kitty” soap-bubble gun. An MIT sophomore, Star Simpson, walked into Logan Airport a few years ago wearing a sweatshirt adorned with a circuit board and green glowing lights. It was an art project meant to draw attention for a campus career fair; instead it got Simpson arrested for possession of a hoax bomb.

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In Ahmed’s case, happily, everything worked out well. He received a flood of public support, including a tweeted invitation from President Obama to bring his clock to the White House, an admiring Facebook post from Mark Zuckerberg, and an internship offer from Twitter. But the underlying problem remains: Too many officials overreact to the merest hint of a security violation. Time and again, zero-tolerance policies, meant to nip serious crimes in the bud, end up punishing manifestly innocent students for little more than acting like kids. No one can object to prudent precautions against violence and terror, especially in schools. But there is nothing prudent about teaching students that “security” overrides common sense, or that the first thing administrators should do when a kid’s project beeps is lose their heads and call 9-1-1.