The local Dallas hacking community has Ahmed Mohamed's back.
Mohamed, a 14-year-old inventor, was arrested earlier this week for bringing a homemade, DIY clock to school, igniting fierce debate—or maybe just outrage—about the over policing of schools, racial profiling, and technological ignorance.
Mohamed was handcuffed and interrogated without a lawyer or his parents present, and there was fear he would be charged with making a "hoax bomb," even though the student insisted his device was merely a homemade clock. His school, Irving MacArthur High, sent a letter home with students informing parents that the police department "responded to a suspicious-looking item on campus" Monday.
If his school won't support a student who is clearly interested in science, engineering, and tinkering, the local hacking community says it will. A local hacker who goes by the name of WhiskeyNeon has given Mohamed's parents a year-long membership to TheLab.ms, a new hackerspace in the Dallas metro area—and other members of the space are working on getting him a lifetime membership. TheLab.ms only allows people older than 18 to have an official membership, but Mohamed will be allowed to use it.
"We're giving him an Arduino, solar panels, a lot of hardware as encouragement because we support what he's doing," WhiskeyNeon told me in a phone conversation. "As a hacker community, this is our backyard. We're going to stand up and show people what this is all about. We want to encourage him."
"This kid took the initiative to make something and brought it to school. The leadership of the school was too ignorant to realize what the child had done—that shows how bad the education system is when it comes to STEM," he added. "I'm ashamed the public school system would react like this and frankly I'm astounded his happened to him."
"He will find like-minded people who back him"
Mohamed has been officially invited to give a talk at the next Dallas Hackers Association meeting, and others in the community are working on getting him memberships to other laboratories in the area. Like many hacking communities, a handful of the association’s members use hacking handles instead of their real names. Mohamed did not immediately respond to a Motherboard interview request.
Tinker, a co-organizer of the Dallas Hackers Association, told me he worries that Ahmed will not only lose interest in engineering, but that his experience could be emotionally scarring.
"He just started school, he's excited and wants to impress his teachers so he brings this in and, boom, he's arrested," he said. "They put him in handcuffs. That's a frightening experience that can make you lose complete trust in authority and can make you not want to reach out anymore about [hacking and engineering]."
"Everything he's doing right now is good, and he needs to know that."
Mohamed's experience is one of the more extreme cases, but teachers, law enforcement, and faculty overreacting to things they don't understand is an all-too-common experience. Tinker says that when he was in school, he was sent to the principal's office for "hackering" a computer.
"A school official overhear me saying I was hacking a computer. It was my own computer at home, and I was just overclocking it," he told me. "At least I was still treated decently, but there has always been a heightened fear mongering over this kind of thing."
Mohamed has also received support from across the nation—President Obama tweeted his support, as did NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, who became famous for his mohawk during the Curiosity Rover landing.
Both WhiskeyNeon and Tinker say they hope Ahmed will become a member of the community, but, at the very least, they hope he doesn't give up inventing.
"We don't want to bombard him personally, but he's got an open invitation to come join us," Tinker said. "With today's internet, today's social media, the vibrant local community we've got—he will find a home for this, even if the schools don't want it. He will find like-minded people who back him, it's just a question of where. Everything he's doing right now is good, and he needs to know that."