Students Arrested for Tinkering: Culture of Fear Stifles Creativity


Photo courtesy of Irvine Police Department

Sabrina Khan

Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year old student at MacArthur High School, was arrested this month for allegedly bringing a hoax bomb into school.
The “hoax-bomb” was no more than a clock that he had assembled at home and put inside a large pencil case to show his engineering teacher. Supposedly, Ahmed’s engineering teacher advised him to avoid showing others, but the alarm on the clock ended up ringing in the middle of his English class.
Though the details become unclear at this point, the school administration ultimately called the police in to investigate. The police took Ahmed into custody – detaining him for eight hours and prohibiting him from contacting his parents – long after the bomb was determined to be a clock. They then accused him of attempting to scare his classmates. Ahmed was suspended from MacArthur High School for three days.
Ahmed’s story has caused a media sensation. Companies and institutions from all over the country are offering him scholarships and internships; he’s been invited to the White House by President Obama himself, and was asked to come and visit Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. But this is a happy ending to a very sad and common story.
There have been countless instances exactly like this, where a student – black, white or Muslim – has put together some parts at home and taken it into school to show a teacher. Just last year, Kiera Wilmot, a sophomore attending Bartow High School in Florida, brought in a water bottle filled with a mix of toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil. She was curious to see what would happen, and unfortunately, the cap popped off the bottle during recess under the watchful eyes of her teachers. Wilmot was arrested and expelled.
As a maker myself, and more importantly, a student with a Middle-Eastern name like Khan, I find it hard to be critical of Ahmed. It’s not because the clock he made was something special, but because he was excited to share his creation. He wanted to impress his teachers and classmates, and their job, in turn, was to encourage him to keep it up. As plenty of people have so quickly pointed out to me, Ahmed could have been my little brother, arrested for such an innocent action. After events like Columbine and Sandy Hook, we as a nation have become afraid of school attacks – because it’s us, students, teachers and parents, that will end up suffering. However, we have begun to let our fear take over. Calling the authorities may have been an appropriate response if the school was completely uncertain about what Ahmed’s device was, but detaining him, a 14 year-old, for eight hours without the ability to contact his parents. That’s stepping out of the realm of legitimate concern and into that of purely irrational fear. 
What we should take from Ahmed’s story is not that he was a Muslim kid who built a clock, but that there has been a pattern of American kids who have tinkered and gotten in trouble for it. The true story is what went through the heads of the police officers as they took him into custody, it’s in why the teacher and the principal ignored his statements, and it’s in the media’s violent reaction to all of the events that took place in Irving. Ahmed wasn’t wrong to be curious.
Let us look at this from the perspective of the engineering teacher, whose actions were pivotal in Ahmed’s story. She well understood that Ahmed had only made a clock, and she had the opportunity to effect the outcome of the events that took place that day. What should she have done?

The proper response would have been for her to offer to keep the clock in the classroom and show it to her students throughout the day, thereby keeping Ahmed from getting in trouble while still supporting his curiosity and effort. By advising him that he would be “better off putting it away,” the engineering teacher failed to recognize the opportunity before her, as someone to encourage, advise and excite her students.  It is clear that she recognized the potential problem with him displaying the clock, but she did nothing constructive to mitigate that risk.
Calling the police was the nail in the coffin for Ahmed, and kids like him.
The psychology behind our reactions in the United States are very much a product of our environment. Not more than a few weeks ago President Obama, in his address after the Oregon shooting, said that we as a nation have become numb to the violent attacks occurring throughout the country. “Somehow, this has become routine,” he said. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine…” Our mistake, our routine, is responding out of fear rather than taking the time to analyze and address the issues that we are faced with. Of course, we ought to be cautious, but not afraid.
The net effect of that reaction was not preventing a bomb, but scaring a kid, and countless others, into suppressing their creativity in and out of the classroom.