Fake bomb ‘Promposal’ gains national notoriety

Media, First Amendment scholars take note of La Center High School student's stunt, suspension

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter

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All Ibrahim Ahmad wanted was a date for the prom, but instead he found himself with a five-day suspension and national notoriety.

By now, people from coast to coast know all about Ahmad’s stunt, where he dressed up as a fake suicide bomber in a high-profile “promposal.” It’s been published in upwards of 130 news sources, including Time magazine, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and Reuters.

The story quickly went viral after breaking Wednesday afternoon on The Columbian’s website. Earlier this week, the 18-year-old La Center High School senior took to the stage at lunchtime wearing a paintball vest packed full of paper tubes and red wires, made to look like explosives. He stood there for mere seconds, holding a sign that read: “I kno it’s A little Late, But I’m kinda…THE BOMB! Rilea, Will U Be My Date To Prom?”

Students laughed, and the girl, Rilea Wolfe, said yes. In Ahmad’s mind, it was an innocent, creative spectacle.

“I’m Middle Eastern, and I thought the bomb was kind of funny and clever,” he told The Columbian on Wednesday.

The point was to go big in asking his would-be date to the big dance, a “promposal” trend that has caught fire among millennials in recent years. Instead, the district told him to go home, handing Ahmad a five-day suspension that would leave him out of commission on prom on Saturday night.

The situation drew an unusual flood of attention to the quiet city of a little more than 3,000. And Ahmad basked in his 15 minutes of fame, lighting up his Twitter feed with tweets glorifying his “promposal” and posing next to a front-page story about the situation.

As the news spread, Ahmad took the time to give a number of TV interviews and even agreed to come to The Columbian’s office to share his story once again on camera. He later skipped out on the arrangement.

Ahmad’s stunt spawned a widespread online discussion about preserving safety in schools while also protecting students’ First Amendment rights. Some criticized the district, calling the punishment an overreaction. Others said Ahmad should count himself lucky to not face any harsher consequences.

First Amendment scholars, such as Ken Paulson, the president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, jumped into the discussion.

“Courts are always going to side with the school if on-campus speech or conduct could be interpreted as threatening,” Paulson wrote on Facebook. “Administrators are given a lot of latitude in managing the school premises.”

Ahmad contends the administrators overstepped their authority, failing to cite any rules he’d broken. He also accuses them of racism.

“If anyone else did that, I feel like no one else would have gotten in trouble for it,” Ahmad said.

As the district fielded a swarm of calls from the media, Superintendent Mark Mansell stood his ground. And as for the charges about racism, Mansell found those particularly appalling.

“Frankly, it’s offensive to me,” he said. “Any student that would think strapping a (fake) suicide bomb to his body is funny and clever would be punished.”

The incident presented a lapse in judgment, Mansell said. But it’s also provided a teaching moment.

“This student is not a bad person,” Mansell said. “He just made a poor choice, and what we try to do is make sure our students learn from these situations.”