DALLAS » The Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into charges of harassment and possible religious discrimination in the school district where 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was handcuffed after bringing a clock to school in September.
“We have, as you may know, opened an investigation into the case of the young man in Irving, Texas,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Thursday evening during a televised interview with a Muslim advocacy group. “So we will see where that investigation goes.”
A Justice Department official elaborated for The Dallas Morning News, via email, that “the Civil Rights Division has an investigation into the Irving School District regarding both harassment and the discipline of students on the basis of race, religion and national origin.”
The investigation does not target Irving City Hall, whose police officers questioned, handcuffed and charged Ahmed with making a “hoax bomb” after his principal pulled him out of class. But it raises the possibility that federal authorities will probe not just the ninth-grader’s treatment that day, but allegations that he was harassed for years in middle school because he is Muslim.
The news has rippled through Irving, which has been in the news near-constantly over tensions with its Islamic community.
“I’m overjoyed,” said Anthony Bond, a friend of Ahmed’s family for years. “That so-called hoax bomb clock boy incident is part of a much bigger problem … He was harassed, he was Muslim-bashed for his whole three years in Sam Houston (Middle School) and it obviously continued into MacArthur High.”
Bond, who is also a community activist in Irving, has filed his own complaint against the school district and police related to Ahmed’s arrest with federal authorities. His complaint, however, is still pending and not the basis for the investigation announced this week.
Instead, it appears to have been prompted by a letter that 29 members of Congress sent to the Department of Justice in mid-September.
The congressional members, including Fort Worth’s Marc Veasey, asked Lynch to investigate Ahmed’s treatment when he was detained by the Irving ISD and police. According to their missive, “reports surrounding the incident strongly suggest that Ahmed Mohamed was systematically profiled based on his faith and ethnicity. This incident highlights an alarming trend in the profiling of Muslim Americans not only by law enforcement, but in our society as a whole.”
Irving ISD officials confirmed to the Morning News last month that the Department of Justice had sent them a letter seeking documents related to Ahmed’s incident. School officials are withholding that letter from the public, citing a possible lawsuit by the family among other reasons.
“We continue to cooperate fully with the Department of Justice inquiry, which was received in October,” Irving ISD spokesperson Lesley Weaver wrote to the Morning News Friday afternoon. “From the school district’s standpoint, I am not aware of any new information regarding this.”
Messages left for school district trustees, whom Weaver said have been aware of the inquiry for weeks, were not immediately returned.
Valerie Jones, who stepped down from the Irving ISD school board several months before Ahmed’s arrest, noted this isn’t the first time the district has faced federal scrutiny over claims of discrimination.
The district signed an agreement with the Department of Justice in 2008, pledging to address complaints raised by Bond and others that it wasn’t dealing fairly with minority-owned businesses.
“It was very serious,” Jones said. “It’s a serious instance whenever a district has an investigation from the Justice Department.”
“Hopefully good will come of it,” she added. “It’s most important that every student feels accepted and treated fairly, regardless of where they come from.”
(Staff writer Avi Selk contributed to this item.)