OK, so what if Ahmed’s clock turned out to be a bomb?

Big story yesterday — a 14 year old gets suspended from school as a result of bringing a home-made clock to school. The boy is Muslim, has dark skin, and his name is Ahmed.   Outrage ensues.

So what if Ahmed’s clock turned out to be a bomb?  The teacher would be saluted as a hero and would likely be invited to the White House.  Thank heavens it was only a clock and not anything dangerous, and it’s unfortunate that Ahmed was put in this embarrassing situation.  Should the teacher have done something different?  The administration?  The police?  I’d say no, yes, and yes.

When Ahmed showed the teacher his clock, what thoughts went through the teacher’s mind?  Option A or B?

Option A:   “Holy crap!  This kid is named Ahmed — certainly he’s an Islamic terrorist.  This is clearly an improvised explosive device.  He probably also has dynamite strapped around his waist underneath that NASA t-shirt.  Eeeek.  Should I throw myself on top of his cigar box?  Tell the other children to run for their lives?  Do I call for the SWAT team myself, or does the principal have to do that?  Lockdown, Lockdown!”

Option B:  “Hmmm.  Here’s a student with an electronic gizmo that I don’t recognize.  It’s only the second week of school and I don’t really know this guy that well yet — he seems harmless but who knows?  In our pre-school workshop training the superintendent reminded us that nothing is more important than safety and to report anything unusual.  So I think I’ll pass this on to the office.”

I’ll bet the teacher’s response was more along the lines of Option B, but the media and social media outrage would suggest Option A.  Absent any incriminating evidence, I’m willing to cut the teacher some slack and assume the teacher has no ill will toward Muslims in general nor to Ahmed in particular.

I was a public school teacher for 37 years.  What would I have done if Ahmed had been my student?

In my first few years in the classroom, I’d have done nothing at all.  That was the late 1970’s.  In the fall it was routine for boys to bring their rifles to my northern Minnesota classroom and line them up along the wall so they could grab them at the end of the day to go hunting straight from school (I did ask the kids not to load the weapons until they left school).  No one gave it a second thought.

By the 90’s things had changed.  Weapons policies changed and automatic expulsions were indicated for any weapons coming to school.  I had a female student pull a large knife out of her bag in my class one day — not with malicious intent;  she was doing a cooking demonstration for the class.  But she was clearly in violation of the district’s no-tolerance, no-questions-asked policy regarding knives in school.  Going by the book I should have alerted the office immediately so they could have called the police and started the official disciplinary procedures.  Instead, I violated policy, allowed the young lady to continue the demonstration, and let it slide.  Afterwards, I reminded the class that knives shouldn’t be brought to school and if they needed a knife or some other dangerous item for a demonstration we should work out a way to make that happen safely.

I think if Ahmed presented himself to me today, I’d contact the office (after all, a teacher can’t leave the classroom) and have the administration and any police liaison staff address the issue.  Ahmed would probably have to cool his heels in the office for a little while as the clock was investigated — and his parents would be notified.  Once it was clear that no one was in danger, we’d apologize for the inconvenience, congratulate Ahmed on his creativity, and remind him and his parents that it would be better not to bring inventions to school without some pre-arrangement.  If “the book” says to automatically suspend, that’s where a principal should have some leeway.

I’d also try to avoid handcuffing a 14 year old and hauling him off if he’s being cooperative and isn’t carrying any weapons.  That’s just plain stupid.

8 thoughts on “OK, so what if Ahmed’s clock turned out to be a bomb?

  1. Thoughtful piece from someone who has been in the line of fire. Good to think about these possibilities before they happen. I’m certain President Obama had confirmation of the young man’s innocence before extending a White House invitation.

    • Thanks, Catherine. I agree with your observation that Obama had to have known the kid didn’t do anything wrong, and I really meant it that I thought it was great that the President sent that tweet (and that Ahmed will get to go to the White House). During my last few years of teaching I coordinated programs for gifted/talented middle school students. Ahmed would’ve fit right in; he seems like a delightful young fellow.

  2. It seems to me it was all racially motivated. I used to go to a school that received bomb threats once in a while. When suspicion of a bomb threat is raised, no one gets near the device, the school gets evacuated, and the bomb squad gets called. Most of the time it was an empty box and someone fellow student calling in to get out of an exam. Nevertheless that was the process of handling it. None of this seemed to have happened.

    • Thanks, Daniel. You’re right about bomb threats. Every school I’ve worked at has a clear process in place for bomb threats and they sound a lot like you describe. I was lucky in my career, though, that I never had to go through a bomb threat (evacuating in Minnesota in January? no thanks) I certainly did plenty of hoax fire drills, especially in nice weather when the kids could dash to their cars and split. You’re also right that bomb threats are usually pranks or an empty box. The nagging question lingers, though: what if it HAD been a bomb? In hindsight it’s pretty clear they handled this badly in Irving. I guess we’ll never know how they would have responded had Ahmed been a white kid named Brice.

  3. I think the issue here is that Option B came about through the coloration of Option A. Did the teacher think Option A? Certainly not. But would Option B have come so quickly to the teacher’s mind if Ahmed were white?

    I want to be on the teacher’s side. I really do. But so much indicates that no one truly thought it was a bomb (well, maybe the teacher)… the principal did not evacuate the school, the police did not call in a bomb squad, etc. If you felt you could let it go when that student pulled out the cooking knife, so could this teacher with this clock (and what other teachers did, from what first reports sound like). Would she have if Ahmed were white?

    Most schools in Texas start in mid-August. If this is true of the Irving school, then she’s had Ahmed for a month. I want that she knows a little bit more about him by this time so as not to jump to fearful conclusions. I also want her to observe safety precautions, but I don’t see it in this situation.

    And in your description of what you would do… isn’t that what the Irving teacher did? And we saw how that turned out.

    I hear your defense and reasoning. I can’t get on board, though, when so much evidence (and personal observation) indicates that this is not an isolated incident (not in reference to Irving, specifically, but the U.S. as a whole).

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful response, Janet. You added some information about which I was unaware, including the start date of Texas schools. If the teacher has had Ahmed for a month, I agree that the situation changes. Would my action be the same as the teacher’s? – now I’m scratching my head. If my front office and local law enforcement were notorious for overly aggressive and inept responses to disciplinary issues, that would factor into my decision. I wonder now if the teacher had a sense of how this would play out. Re: the knife incident – I don’t applaud my decision to violate policy, I’m just acknowledging that I did (and I imagine I’m not alone). I didn’t mention in the original post that the girl with the knife happened to be the daughter of another teacher in the building (can you just imagine if I’d busted her!) But if I was shown a home-made electronic device that I didn’t recognize? – I might not let it slide, and I hope the skin color of the student wouldn’t factor into my decision. In the Irving situation, though, I keep coming back to the question that titles the original post: What if it HAD been a bomb (or detonating device, whatever)?

      • My basic answer to your original question:

        Yes, I agree that if it had actually been a bomb, we would be applauding the teacher and administrator. Happy I have been to see the stories about teachers who have been all that we hope for in emergency situations.

        The caveat (with some pushback):

        It wasn’t a bomb, and those of us part of white population too frequently cloud our prejudicial and racist nature within this idea of “safety precautions”. By using “safe”, we hide behind the subtext of “I trust white people who look like me and don’t trust brown-skinned people who I’ve been programmed to believe are criminals.” I recognize I am part of this problem. I might have been this same Irving teacher in the past. I hope I am not this same teacher anymore. I hope that I don’t automatically feel unsafe when a student of color approaches me with something (item, attitude, opinion, response) when I would not feel the same in the identical situation with a white student.

        • Beautifully expressed. Thanks. Especially “I am part of this problem.”

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