On 14 September 2015, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth-grade student at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, was arrested after school officials confiscated what they described as a “hoax bomb” from him.
The device was in fact a home-assembled clock, not a bomb or a counterfeit bomb. According to the New York Times, Mohamed’s English teacher discovered the boy’s device when it “beeped,” and someone (it was unclear who) at the school then called police:
Ahmed said he brought the clock, which he had fashioned with a digital face in an inexpensive box, to school on Monday to show to an engineering teacher, who said it was “nice” but then told him that he should not show the invention to other teachers.
But when it beeped during an English class, Ahmed revealed the device to his English teacher, according to an account in The Dallas Morning News. “She was like, it looks like a bomb,” he said.
In a video posted on the newspaper’s website, Ahmed described how he was eventually taken from school by the police. “They took me to a room filled with five officers,” he said. “They interrogated me, and searched through my stuff and took my tablet and my invention.”
Social media users were rapidly moved by Mohamed’s experience, and a jarring image of the teen handcuffed at the police station (while wearing a NASA shirt) began circulating along with tweets including the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed:
— Independent US (@IndyUSA) September 16, 2015
News of the boy’s arrest and interrogation spread quickly in technology/maker circles. Tech blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash was among those who tweeted to boost the story’s early signal:
Mohamed described the arrest in a video published by Dallas Morning News:
We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb.He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation … It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?
On 16 September 2015, Irving Independent School District (ISD) representatives and police appeared at a joint press conference to address the incident involving Mohamed. Photographs of the purportedly suspicious device were distributed at that conference:
— Robert Wilonsky (@RobertWilonsky) September 16, 2015
Chief Larry Boyd described Mohamed’s homemade clock as “certainly suspicious in nature,” adding that the teacher “was concerned that [the clock] was possibly the infrastructure for a bomb.” Boyd described Mohamed as “not forthcoming” during an interrogation, stating the teen was “taken into custody for possession of a hoax bomb.” However, Boyd said that further investigation “revealed the device apparently was a homemade experiment” and that there was “no evidence to support the perception he intended to create alarm”:
On 16 September 2015, Mohamed’s sisters Eyman and Ayisha (18 and 17, respectively) started a Twitter account to communicate with supporters on behalf of Ahmed. In just a few hours, the account had attracted more than 30,000 followers:
Among those who voiced support for the teen was President Barack Obama, who sent him an invite to the White House via Twitter:
Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.
— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015
President Obama was not the only powerful person urging Mohamed not to be discouraged; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published the following status update on 16 September 2015:
You’ve probably seen the story about Ahmed, the 14 year old student in Texas who built a clock and was arrested when he took it to school. Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed. Ahmed, if you ever want to come by Facebook, I’d love to meet you. Keep building.
Others simply poked fun at what they saw as a preposterous situation:
In addition to encouragement and support from high-profile individuals both on and off social media, digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future started a petition calling for the removal of the suspension from Ahmed Mohamed’s official school record.
Ahmed’s story spurred sub-controversies involving reports that he had simply transferred the mechanism of an existing digital clock into a new case rather than “inventing” or building the clock himself, and claims by his sister that she had been suspended from school a few years earlier because another student (falsely) accused her of wanting to “blow up the school.”