IRVING — Ahmed Mohamed — who makes his own radios and repairs his own go-kart — hoped to impress his teachers when he brought a homemade clock to MacArthur High on Monday.
So the 14-year-old missed the student council meeting and took a trip in handcuffs to juvenile detention. His clock now sits in an evidence room. Police say they may yet charge him with making a hoax bomb — though they acknowledge he told everyone who would listen that it’s a clock.
Instead, the school phoned police about Ahmed’s circuit-stuffed pencil case.
In the meantime, Ahmed’s been suspended, his father is upset and the Council on American-Islamic Relations is once again eyeing claims of Islamophobia in Irving.
Box of circuit boards
A box full of circuit boards sits at the foot of Ahmed’s small bed in central Irving. His door marks the border where the Mohamed family’s cramped but lavishly decorated house begins to look like the back room at RadioShack.
“Here in high school, none of the teachers know what I can do,” Ahmed said, fiddling with a cable while a soldering iron dangled from the shelf behind him.
He loved robotics club in middle school and was searching for a similar niche in his first few weeks of high school.
So he decided to do what he’s always done: He built something.
Ahmed’s clock was hardly his most elaborate creation. He said he threw it together in about 20 minutes before bedtime on Sunday: a circuit board and power supply wired to a digital display, all strapped inside a case with a tiger hologram on the front.
He showed it to his engineering teacher first thing Monday morning and didn’t get quite the reaction he’d hoped for.
“He was like, ‘That’s really nice,’” Ahmed said. “‘I would advise you not to show any other teachers.’”
He kept the clock inside his school bag in English class, but the teacher complained when the alarm beeped in the middle of a lesson. Ahmed brought his invention up to show her afterward.
“She was like, it looks like a bomb,” he said.
“I told her, ‘It doesn’t look like a bomb to me.’”
The teacher kept the clock. When the principal and a police officer pulled Ahmed out of sixth period, he suspected he wouldn’t get it back.
They led Ahmed into a room where four other police officers waited. He said an officer he’d never seen before leaned back in his chair and remarked: “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.”
Ahmed felt suddenly conscious of his brown skin and his name — one of the most common in the Muslim religion. But the police kept him busy with questions.
The bell rang at least twice, he said, while the officers searched his belongings and questioned his intentions. The principal threatened to expel him if he didn’t make a written statement, he said.
“They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?’” Ahmed said.
“I told them no, I was trying to make a clock.”
“He said, ‘It looks like a movie bomb to me.’”
Ahmed never claimed his device was anything but a clock, said police spokesman James McLellan. And police have no reason to think it was dangerous. But officers still didn’t believe Ahmed was giving them the whole story.
“We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”
Asked what broader explanation the boy could have given, the spokesman explained:
“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?”
Police led Ahmed out of MacArthur about 3 p.m., his hands cuffed behind him and an officer on each arm. A few students gaped in the halls. He remembers the shocked expression of his student counselor — the one “who knows I’m a good boy.”
Ahmed was spared the inside of a cell. The police sent him out of the juvenile detention center to meet his parents shortly after taking his fingerprints.
They’re still investigating the case, and Ahmed hasn’t been back to school. His family said the principal suspended him for three days.
“They thought, ‘How could someone like this build something like this unless it’s a threat?’” Ahmed said.
An Irving ISD statement gave no details about the case, citing student privacy laws. But a letter addressed to "Parents/Guardians" and signed by MacArthur Principal Dan Cummings said Irving police had "responded to a suspicious-looking item on campus" and had determined that "the item ... did not pose a threat to your child's safety."
‘Invent good things’
“He just wants to invent good things for mankind,” said Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, who immigrated from Sudan and occasionally returns there to run for president. “But because his name is Mohamed and because of Sept. 11, I think my son got mistreated.”
Mohamed is familiar with anti-Islamic politics. He once made national headlines for debating a Florida pastor who burned a Quran.
But he wasn’t paying much attention this summer when Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne became a national celebrity in anti-Islamic circles, fueling rumors in speeches that the religious minority was plotting to usurp American laws.
However, the Council on American-Islamic Relations took note.
“This all raises a red flag for us: how Irving’s government entities are operating in the current climate,” said Alia Salem, who directs the council’s North Texas chapter and has spoken to lawyers about Ahmed’s arrest.
“We’re still investigating,” she said, “but it seems pretty egregious.”
Meanwhile, Ahmed is sitting home in his bedroom, tinkering with old gears and electrical converters, pronouncing words like “ethnicity” for what sounds like the first time.
He’s vowed never to take an invention to school again.