Clock or bomb? Schools can’t take chances

Opinion, News, Rights

When Ahmed Mohamed brought the clock he constructed to school in Irving, Texas, he ended up fingerprinted and handcuffed because the clock was believed to be a bomb. He then became an instant star after the news media jumped on the story as an example of Islamophobia and bigotry. A 14-year-old boy handcuffed! He was treated differently because he is a Muslim! Within hours, he was invited to the White House, Mark Zuckerburg asked if he’d like to visit Facebook’s campus, and he was offered an internship by Twitter.

This is a story that won’t go away, as the media is now doing a double take with reports that Ahmed didn’t actually build the clock, that he didn’t just innocently bring it to school to show his technical skill, and a variety of other accusations. And now that some reassessing is going on, perhaps we should ask what duty did the school actually have and did they do anything wrong?

Certainly, issue can be taken with the way the law enforcement authorities handled the incident. They didn’t evacuate the school or bring in a bomb squad, which begs the question: Why did they handcuff and fingerprint the boy if they weren’t really concerned it was a bomb? There are real and serious reservations about the conduct of the police and how they treated this young man.

However, these were all actions (or lack of actions) taken by the police, not the school. All the school did was report there was a potential bomb. Was there anything wrong with that?

The law agrees with the school

While there certainly may have been inequity in the way Ahmed was treated once the authorities were called, schools are supposed to be concerned with protecting the safety of their students. The First Circuit Court of Appeals has said “A state imposing compulsory attendance on school children must take reasonable steps to protect those required to attend from foreseeable risks of personal injury or death.”

Teachers and administrators are not bomb experts. If they had reason to believe a bomb was present, calling the police was a reasonable step to protect the school and the students. It was up to the authorities to determine if it was a bomb and to take appropriate action based on that determination.

It is also well established law that a school has a right to perform a search on a student when there is reasonable suspicion to maintain a safe environment. This would support the school’s right to confiscate a potential bomb and contact authorities.

Meanwhile, Texas law requires that a school report serious criminal activity to the authorities. (Tex. Educ. Code Ann. §37.015) Section 37.019 of the Texas Education Code allows a school to remove or expel a student on an emergency basis. All of this supports the school bringing Ahmed to the office, taking the clock, and calling the police.

The spokeswoman for the Irving Independent School District, Lesley Weaver said, “We always ask our students and staff to immediately report if they observe any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior. 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.”

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress recommends the following on its web site: “All bomb threats must be taken seriously and carefully analyzed. The bomb report should be treated as genuine until investigated and until a search of the school has been completed.”

Ahmed never made any threat. He never claimed to have a bomb; police acknowledge that he consistently said the device was just a clock. Still, it can be argued that the presence of the homemade device constituted a reasonable threat in and of itself, and that therefore the school acted appropriately, exercising due caution.

And what was that guy thinking?

There was one person seemingly in position to stop this whole circus from erupting in the first place: Ahmed first showed the clock to his engineering teacher. “He was like, ‘That’s really nice,’” Mohamed said to the Dallas Morning News. “‘I would advise you not to show any other teachers.’” Sure enough, it was another teacher—presumably without engineering expertise—who raised concern about the clock and called in authorities.

If the engineering teacher recognized the danger of misidentifying the clock, perhaps he should have suggested it not be kept on school property? If he believed it was an item that could alarm other teachers, perhaps he could have suggested Ahmed leave the clock with him, or arrange to have it taken home? And why didn’t he speak up and insist to police it was not, in fact, a bomb when they were taking the kid away for fingerprinting and possible arrest on extremely serious charges?

Was Ahmed treated unfairly? Definitely. Was the school to blame for this? Probably not. But that engineering teacher has some explaining to do.

Image courtesy of Irving Police Department/CBS

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