On a Monday afternoon in the fall of 1993, my hometown newspaper, the Norfolk Daily News of Norfolk, Nebraska, ran a story under the headline: "Bomb found at Skyview Lake bridge." A photo showed a state trooper from the explosives unit. The Lucite face shield on his helmet was still lifted as a fellow trooper helped him close the straps on his protective suit. He looked deadly serious.
"An officer discovered the explosive device when he was investigating a complaint that someone threw eggs at a passing vehicle," read the story. "Making a homemade bomb is a felony offense." It ended with a plea to call Crime Stoppers.
I was 14 years old, and I had a paper route. It was my job to deliver this news to about 65 homes in my neighborhood. But, by the time I had come home from school, loaded my papers, and set off on my bike, the story was already out of date. Police had already caught the bomber. It was me.
So why wasn't I in cuffs? My mom had told the police that I needed to complete my paper route, otherwise the neighbors would complain. Then, she promised, she'd bring me down to the station for questioning. The police agreed.
Also: I was white.
I delivered the papers, rolling them tight and fleeing each house before any of my customers could strike up a conversation about the front-page news. When I was finished, my mom took me to the station, and after a long interrogation, I confessed. Later, I would go to court and get sentenced to one year of probation and 125 hours of community service.
Like most people, I was appalled this week to read the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Texas student who was arrested when school officials mistook a homemade clock for a bomb. In light of how Ahmed was treated, I've been forced to reflect on how easy I got off — despite the fact that I actually built a bomb.
Here's what I've learned.
The early 1990s were a different time.
That Monday in 1993 came years before April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine massacre. I'd be nearly twice as old before September 11, 2001. Letters to the editor — the slow, moderated soap box that preceded social media — portrayed me as an out-of-control kid who needed discipline. The writers never questioned whether I was a malicious sociopath or a potential terrorist under the influence of foreigners. Most importantly, the news stayed local.
I cannot imagine what would have happened today. Twitter would light up, of course. Photos would reach every corner of the country faster than they hit the front page of the local newspaper. Would national political candidates weigh in? Would local officials let paranoia get the best of them, allowing past acts of terrorism and mass shootings to cloud their judgment? In the national spotlight, would they feel pressure to respond differently? The whole country would be sizing my local officials up, asking whether they had been sufficiently vigilant in the face of a suspicious device.
With recent history, and under the scrutiny of social media, officials today are more likely than they've ever been to make snap judgments, relying on the familiar tropes of terrorism and mass shootings to inform their choices. The consequence is a system that treats reckless teens — especially brown ones — like hardened criminals, depriving them of the opportunity to make up for past mistakes. Or worse: one that treats a smart, responsible teen with an Arabic last name, one who hasn't even made a mistake, like his only interest in technology could be murder.
Kids are capable of brilliant, strange, and sometimes stupid things. Don't waste too much time asking why.
My explosive device used propellant and an ignitor from model rocket engines, widely available in any hobby store. It was about the size of a bottle of aspirin. Previous research had shown that this design was capable of unfolding a mailbox in spectacular fashion, but it was not going to damage a bridge. It was, however, going to wake up half the town. It definitely could have blown off my hand.
So why did I do it? Because I was 14.
My father, after almost three days of silent treatment, finally asked me the "why" question at the dinner table. I told him something about being bored and seeking something more exciting, about a thrill and a test of my skills.
He pounded on the dinner table: "Don't give me that Hollywood bullshit!"
My dad was a hard-working technician at a local manufacturing plant that made magnets for the auto industry. His chief concern was getting enough overtime to cover all the bills while still saving enough to pay college tuition for my younger sister and me. My juvenile curiosity and thrill seeking were not practical. My dad was both furious and confused.
The best thing we can do for a young person is to direct his or her enthusiasms and curiosities — no matter how strange or even dangerous they may seem — into some positive activity, because teenagers are never going to lack for restlessness. In the case of Ahmed Mohamed, it's even easier. He seems to have found his own positive outlets — he just needs to be allowed to do it without a paranoid country putting him in handcuffs.
I got treated like the white, middle-class kid I was, and that's what every kid deserves.
I wasn't let off scot-free, but from that first day, when I was allowed to complete my paper route, the authorities trusted that I was in good hands with my parents even though my crime suggested otherwise. By the same token, my parents completely trusted the police and the legal system to give me the justice that I deserved — and no more.
This mutual trust existed because I was part of the dominant culture in a small community. Many young people in America do not benefit from this kind of community trust. They live outside of it.
Sending me to juvenile corrections or to highly structured residential care was a real possibility, one that would have substantially altered the course of my life. But in the courtroom, everything worked in my favor. I was there on time and in my Sunday best. My parents where there too, right behind me. One of my accomplices — another middle-class white kid — was there with his parents and grandparents. We had good legal representation.
Compare this image to one of the other teens on the docket that day, a Hispanic kid, likely part of the city's new and growing population of Mexican immigrants. His parents were not there. Perhaps they had to work, but the more likely case is that he spoke English better than they did — so what help could they be anyway? Their presence might have reinforced the idea that they were outsiders.
I was saved from detention and allowed to remain with my parents at least in part because of my skin color and social class. My family was not wealthy or well-known, but we looked like a nice, responsible bunch. We looked like we were from Norfolk, not somewhere else.
Social homogeneity, especially the kind reinforced by race and language, breeds trust. The adults in my case all gave one another the benefit of the doubt, they all operated in good faith. They delivered a unified message that I had done wrong and that my sentence was appropriate and justified. The adults' trust in one another translated into a trust in me and in my capacity to reform. The consequence was leniency that many others aren't lucky enough to receive.
Sometimes the best justice is shame
I was a juvenile when I was sentenced and so my name did not appear in the paper at first. But Norfolk was a town of just 21,000 people then. Word spread fast and the community came to a rapid consensus: I was an idiot.
They reminded me of this judgment every day for at least a year. Teachers looked at me differently. In history class, when we read about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my classmates made jokes. The girl who sat next to me in band would no longer talk to me (her father was in the State Patrol). My friends' parents forbade them from hanging out with me, which was just salt in the wound because I was permanently grounded anyway. The Norfolk Daily News ran an editorial about my crime with the catching title "It's Stupid." For a 14-year-old, becoming unpopular was a far worse sentence than some community service. From the authorities to my parents to my peers, I was shamed. This, more than anything else, was a powerful deterrent.
If you treat a kid like a criminal, they're more likely to act like one
In the past 15 years, I have served with several nonprofits in the Omaha area, often working in low-income neighborhoods that are far more racially and ethnically diverse than the ones I knew as a kid. In the safety and privacy of one-on-one conversations, I have seen seemingly tough, unreachable kids break down in tears because they had failed to meet the expectations of teachers, mentors, or parents. Many of these kids are considered gang members. Photos of them hang on the wall in the Omaha Police Department's "gang unit," arranged in a hierarchy and given ridiculous titles like "captain" and "soldier."
If shame can be a powerful motivator, so can glory, no matter how flimsily dispensed. Many people like to blame "gang culture" for glorifying theft, drugs, and violence, and I don't necessarily disagree. However, I've found that local media and even police can become complicit in perpetuating the glorious myth of gangs. These organizations describe teen gangs like organized crime rings, printing or broadcasting their street names and even printing mug shots.
Don't get me wrong: Some gangs are a real menace, but most of the so-called gangs in Omaha are fleeting, loose associations of hormone-driven kids; they couldn't organize a kickball game let alone a crime ring. If many of them, especially the younger ones, were treated the way I was as a 14-year-old - that is, like the individual, confused, and often downtrodden kids they are - they might not become such self-fulfilling prophesies of hardened criminality.
The best anti-gang efforts I have seen reach kids when they are young with a consistent, whole-community shaming of gang culture and a strong anti-violence message. These include parents, police, teachers, clergy, and older youth who have been there and done that. But building this kind of consistent message is impossible without real community-wide trust. And that trust is often hardest to build in communities that need it most, where poverty and racism stand in the way of an understanding society.
I knew nothing of poverty or want, and so my sentence was an eye-opener.
It took a lot of weekends to complete my 125 hours of community service. After I finished washing and waxing all of the city's ambulances and firetrucks, I got pretty bored. I recall spending one afternoon watching movies in the fire station's lounge with a few firefighters. Sleepless in Seattle, just out on VHS, was a form of soft punishment for a 14-year-old boy.
Eventually, my probation officer got wise and sent me to the local Salvation Army. There I maintained the food pantry, organized racks in the thrift store, cleaned and painted an old warehouse, and rode around on the other side of town in a broken-down truck delivering food baskets to impoverished families. This experience challenged me, as a 14 year old, to consider whether I had taken all of my good fortune — my clothes, my food, my house, my family — for granted. I worked alongside adults who had dedicated their lives to serving people in need. They became a new kind of role model that I would not have found elsewhere.
Norfolk was a small enough town that everyone went to the same public high school; it is a virtue of small towns that the other side of the tracks is still pretty close. But in larger metro areas, like where we are raising our family today, well-off kids have not only different neighborhoods, but different schools, different sports leagues, and different opportunities altogether. It is hard to be empathetic when you hardly know the other side exists, and I was fortunate to be "punished" by having that empathy thrust upon me, instead of being warehoused in a jail somewhere.
When the time was right, I needed someone to welcome me back
One day, some time after my sentencing, I got a phone call. It was from a classmate of mine. He was known as an all-around good kid: a straight-A student who could be seen at all hours shooting free throws in his parents' driveway.
He asked if I could spend the night at his house: watch some movies, talk about basketball, and eat popcorn. This was a big deal. Since the incident, no one had even called me, let alone asked me to come over. I asked my mom. She smiled and said yes. I went back to the phone and accepted.
This invitation back to normal teen life (pre-arranged by my mom and my new friend's mom, it turned out) marked a turning point. Soon, I was trusted to play pick-up soccer in the backyard of one of my old accomplices. Not long after that, I went to a high school basketball game. There were still kids who couldn't sit by me, but some could. This was my community beginning to thaw, starting to welcome me back, but only after seeing that I wasn't a bad kid. Few kids are, after all. But a lot of them make mistakes.
It takes a village and a family to raise a child.
The idea that there is some kind of conflict between the village and family approaches to supporting children, or that these are somehow different approaches at all, is nonsense to me. When I built a bomb, I needed my father to pound on the table and tell me my head was full of bullshit. I needed him and my mom to be in the courtroom. I needed my teachers to look at me funny. I needed those role models at the Salvation Army. I needed friends to call and offer forgiveness.
In the end, I got the treatment that a deviant kid deserved — a fair, coordinated response by family and community, including tough consequences and a way to earn back a positive standing. Every kid who makes a mistake deserves this treatment.
Looking back, I want to be proud of my hometown for treating me the right way. But knowing that not every kid would get the same treatment sours my pride. I am left wondering how we might extend communities of trust beyond the dominant culture, or how we might calmly and effectively put more troubled kids on the right path.
And, most importantly, how we might recognize the kids who aren't troubled at all and keep them out of handcuffs all together.
Shane Pekny lives in Bennington, Nebraska, with his wife of seven years and their two preschool sons. Over the past 12 years, he has worked for several nonprofits in the Omaha area, including Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill Industries, and Boys Town.