Ahmed and his clock come to your school. What would happen?

On Monday in Irving, Texas, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed came to school with a digital clock he had built. He showed his Engineering teacher, who told him not to show it to other teachers. In English class the clock beeped and the teacher asked what it was. He showed her and she confiscated it.

Sometime later that day, Ahmed was called to the principal’s office, where he was questioned by police, arrested, and taken out of school in handcuffs. He was not allowed to call his parents.

They thought it was a bomb: 9th-grader arrested after bringing a home-built clock to school

I’m going to keep this post focused on the part that happened at school and the school’s reaction. You can read the rest — the charges have been dropped but the school suspended him for three days. You probably know about the huge social media reaction towards this story, including being invited to the White House by President Obama.

Personally, I think there is a racial and Islamophobic component to the reaction, most likely compounded by a climate of Muslim-bashing in the city led by the mayor. But even if that were not the case, I think there is much to learn about treating students.

So, what’s the lesson here? How would your school react?
You can’t really fault people for looking at this device and wondering about it. It does look like a “movie bomb” (as one of the police officers called it). Is everyone supposed to be an expert in what a bomb might look like? By the way, the photos make it look like a briefcase-sized device, but it’s actually a pencil case, about 6 inches wide. (You Be the Judge: Does This Look Like a Clock or a Bomb?)

Nobody wants to be the person on the news being asked, “Why didn’t you do anything?” after some disaster happens. “He seemed like such a nice boy” is not going to fly. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and too many school shootings, people are more aware than ever that bad things can happen when you least expect it.

But the point of everyone being “on alert” for “suspicious activity” is lost when no one really knows what that looks like or what they should do when they see something. It leaves people open to speculating based more on fear and half-truths than on reality. Little brown boys become terrorists and criminals when imaginations run wild and imagine “what if” instead of dealing with the facts (and the child) in front of them.

A couple of initial points:

  • If the Engineering teacher thought that the device was suspicious looking enough to tell Ahmed to not show it to teachers, then he or she probably should have taken it at that point. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.
  • It’s certainly possible that the English teacher thought it was a bomb. However, if you think something is a bomb, do you hold out your hands and say, “give it to me” and put it in your desk drawer?

This, I think, is the point where the “bomb” stopped being important and the criminalizing of Ahmed started. If you have a “bomb” that you are really worried about, you call the police who bring the bomb squad. Irving is a major metropolitan area near the Dallas Fort Worth airport. There are people who know what a bomb looks like, and can deal with real ones.

The fact that this didn’t happen is the crime. The police were used not to ensure the safely of the school and all the occupants, but to simply show up to collect the “criminal”, already tried and convicted by school officials. And worse, they inflamed the situation with groundless speculation on the boy’s intent, concluding in an Alice-in-Wonderland-like fashion, that because Ahmed kept insisting that the clock was just a clock, he must be hiding something, which allowed them to arrest him for a “hoax bomb”.

Social media is mocking the teachers, school officials, and police because they couldn’t tell the difference between a clock and a bomb. I think that’s false – they knew the whole time that it wasn’t a bomb.

If you think you really are dealing with a bomb, you evacuate the school and let professionals deal with it. So obviously, someone made a decision at a very early point that this was not a real bomb. Demurring about that fact is simply a lie to cover up the mishandling of this situation.

But that’s not the real story. The outrage is that they cared so little about the welfare of this student to moderate their reaction with some common sense. They weren’t in a crisis situation, there was no danger to the school or the people inside. There was plenty of time to seek other courses of action and get more information.

Maybe someone who knew the boy should have been called, for example the engineering teacher, and obviously his parents. As Ahmed was led out in handcuffs, he saw his student counselor with a shocked expression – “the one who knows I am a good boy” said Ahmed.

Instead, he was questioned for 90 minutes by four or five police officers and threatened with expulsion by the principal if he didn’t make a written confession. Ahmed was not allowed to call his parents, even though he asked. All this time, the clock was in the same room. Obviously no one thought it was a bomb.

The school, district officials, police, and city officials insist that Ahmed’s name, religion, and race (his family is from Sudan) had nothing to do with his treatment.

However, the suspicion by the world that a climate of hostility towards children of color and/or Muslims exists seems justified by the lack of moderation and clumsy rush to judgment in the school’s and police response.

To this date, there has been no apology to Ahmed, nor has his suspension been rescinded.

In fact, just the opposite has happened. From the district, principal, mayor, and police chief there has been a solid stream of justification.

(from the Washington Post story) Irving Independent School District spokeswoman 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.”

So here, the district is trying to portray the handling of this incident as necessary to “protect our students” and a matter of safety. This is obviously false, there were never any students in danger (besides Ahmed) – and they knew it.

The school issued a letter to parents and the community which was quickly mocked worldwide. It blames Ahmed and obfuscates the fact that when it counted, they felt it was perfectly fine to NOT protect one particular student. The condescending tone of the “helpful” advice is grating.

“I recommend using this opportunity to talk with your child about the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited. Also, this is a good time to remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they observe to any school employee so we can address it right away. We will always take necessary precautions to protect our students.”

This is silly. It’s obvious that clocks aren’t on the list of prohibited devices. Plus, suggesting to students that reporting suspicious items or behavior will result in increased safety is obviously not true, since they just saw a classmate marched out in handcuffs.

A few days later, the district pulled a classic deflecting move, issuing a statement defending the English teacher – as if that was the problem. “We do stand behind what the teacher did,” [a district spokesperson] said. “We believe she was acting in the best interest for the safety of all 2,800 students at MacArthur High School. She followed the correct procedures.”

I’m sure the teacher who reported it believed that she was doing the right thing. In fact, if this incident had not gone viral, the Engineering teacher might be in danger of punishment since the “suspicious object” went unreported. In zero tolerance land, a teacher using good judgment and reasoning based on actually knowing a student is  in danger.

But everything that happened after the “suspicious object” was reported to school officials is the problem – one that the district and school are not talking about, much less taking responsibility or apologizing for.

Consider that this school has an award-winning STEM program and is one of a tiny percentage of high schools in the U.S. that offer ANY kind of engineering class. This school should have been the best place for a young student interested in electronics to share his passion and talent. What went wrong? What lessons can other schools learn?

So, for your consideration, here are some questions for those of you in schools.

  • How would your current procedures work if Ahmed and his clock  appeared in your school?
  • What are the procedures in place for dealing with a “suspicious object”?
  • What are the definitions of “suspicious object” and “suspicious behavior”?
  • What are the criteria for calling police to arrest or question a student?
  • In this case, there were two school resource officers (SROs) (police who are stationed on campus) who were involved with questioning Ahmed. At some point they were joined by additional officers called to the school. What are your procedures for calling in additional police? Do your SROs operate under different rules than “outside” police officers? How are SROs trained about school policy?
  • Do you know what the law says about whether minors have the right to have parents, guardians, or an attorney present when they are questioned by police, either before or after arrest?
  • What procedures are in place for allowing students to call parents? Is there a trigger for this (i.e., time spent being questioned, seriousness of incident, etc.)? If so, what is it? Is that fair and correct?
  • Is it school policy to ask students to confess or provide written statements under duress?
  • Who is responsible for issuing statements to the press or to social media speaking for the school in response to incidents? Are these statements (including tweets and Facebook posts) checked by anyone before they go out?
  • Does it matter if the incident goes “viral”? What happens to students who get in trouble but don’t get tweets from the President?
  • What statement would you write if you were a district official and this happened at your district?
  • Are there avenues to change course, change minds, or apologize if actions were taken in error? Who is responsible for that?
  • Some have suggested that apologizing to Ahmed or undoing the suspension would open the  district or city to a lawsuit. Do you have a firm legal opinion if this is true or not?
  • Is apologizing to a student seen as weak or an invitation to future troublemakers?
  • What is (or should have been) the principal’s role, both now and at the time of the incident?
  • If you reviewed your records, would a pattern of disproportionate disciplinary action appear towards any group? Do you have data to review? If not, should that be collected?
  • Beyond discipline, do you believe that children of color or of minority religions are treated differently at your school? Are parents treated differently? If so, what are you doing about it?
  • Ahmed says that he’s been called names like “terrorist” at school before. What is your school policy for incidents like this? According to existing policy, is that considered bullying? What measures are in place to deal with  it? Is it acceptable to say, “well, no one reported it”?
  • The Mohamed family says that Ahmed will transfer to another school. Does this close the incident at his current school? What should his current school do, if anything? If Ahmed showed up at your school on Monday ready to enroll, what would you do?

You’ve been handed a perfect case study for your next faculty meeting. And as any crisis manager would advise, the time to think about this is before it happens to you.

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