A woman's outrage at her son's two-minute-long pat down at a Texas airport has ignited a debate over the line between security and discomfort for travellers, particularly for minors.
Jennifer Williamson's family was departing from Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas (DFW) on 26 March heading to San Diego when 13-year-old Aaron was pulled aside for a pat-down after his laptop triggered the scanner.
He was barefoot and wearing a T-shirt and shorts and, despite his mother informing the officer Aaron suffered from sensory processing disorder (SPD) and felt anxiety when touched for too long, he was thoroughly checked for around two minutes.
The woman recorded the incident on her phone and shared the video and her account in a Facebook post, which was watched more than 6 million times and the post was shared more than 100,000 times.
"We have been through hell this morning. They detained Aaron for well over an hour at DFW. (And deliberately kept us from our flight... we are now on an alternate) We were treated like dogs because I requested they attempt to screen him in other ways per TSA rules. He has SPD and I didn't want my child given a pat down like this. Let me make something else crystal clear. He set off NO alarms. He physically did not alarm at all during screening, he passed through the detector just fine. He is still several hours later saying 'I don't know what I did. What did I do?' I am livid."
A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) statement said two police officers were called to "mitigate the concerns of the mother", but Williamson does not describe the officers' presence as reassuring. "I wish I had taped the entire interchange because it was horrifying. We had two DFW police officers that were called and flanking him on each side," she wrote "Somehow these power tripping TSA agents who are traumatizing children and doing whatever they feel like without any cause, need to be reined in."
The TSA statement also maintains the officer explained the procedure to the boy: "TSA allows for a pat-down of a teenage passenger, and in this case, all approved procedures were followed to resolve an alarm of the passenger's laptop. The video shows a male TSA officer explaining the procedure to the passenger, who fully cooperates. Afterward, the TSA officer was instructed by his supervisor, who was observing, to complete the final step of the screening process."
NBC reporter Tony Costello was also told by the TSA that they were checking whether a different procedures should have been followed, but the agency also warned "terrorists are determined to bring down a plane" and "overseas have they used children to smuggle weapons" – although it is unclear what specific event the TSA was referring to.
Several people commented on the video condemning the procedure as "abusive", some even going as far as accusing the officer of paedophilia. Others however defended the agent, with one comment reading: "You people are slamming a man who is doing exactly what he was trained to do. TSA announced weeks ago that the pat down will be longer, more invasive and cause controversy. I had this exact pat down plus them feeling my bra band. You need to think with your head and not let your emotions take over because he's a child."
At the beginning of March, the TSA announced the pat-down procedures were being strengthened "to better search for threats" following a 2015 report finding major security lapses. The new procedure includes a thorough check of the passenger's body, including the head, chest, arms, legs and the waste, touching on sensitive areas like the groin.