Florida student charged with felonies for science experiment

DALLAS, May 1st, 2013 – The case of 16-year old student Kiera Wilmot is making the rounds today, and for good reason. As Reason Magazine and WTSP.com in Florida report, “Meet Kiera Wilmot is a 16-year-old student in Bartow, Florida. Before last week, Bartow High School Principal Ron Pritchard told WTSP-TV, she had “never been in trouble before. Ever.”

Curious to experiment for an upcoming Science Fair, Wilmot mixed toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a tiny 8-ounce water bottle. She was on school grounds, but not in a classroom. The student was unsure what to expect, but heard from a friend the mixture would produce non-toxic smoke. The concoction caused the bottle top to pop off and, in fact, produce smoke.

Assistant Principal Dan Durham reportedly heard the noise, investigated and called the police. The arrest report can be reviewed here.

The chemicals were legal and no one was hurt, but the activity violated the school’s code of conduct, which mandates expulsion for any “student in possession of a bomb or explosive device…while at a school, a school activity or a school bus…unless it’s used as part of a school-related activity sanctioned by and conducted by a teacher.”

Wilmot’s friends and classmates told reporters, “She just wanted to see what happened to those chemicals in the bottle,” one teen said. “Now, look what happened.”

Principal Pritchard agreed. “She made a bad choice. Honestly, I don’t think she meant to ever hurt anyone. She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked too,” he said. “She told us everything and was very honest. She didn’t run or try to hide the truth. We had a long conversation with her.”

Wilmot has been expelled, arrested and charged with possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device. Her family was unavailable for comment, but she, according to reports, will be tried as an adult.

Polk County School administratorsreleased a statementsupporting their actions:

“Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a sercious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules. We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions. We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff.”

Miami New Times smartly added, “So, sorry kids. Don’t try any extracurricular science projects on school grounds, especially if they could result in anything resembling an explosion.”

This story should concern every student and parent with children in public education systems, particularly in Florida. As the Reason article observed, “As far as I can tell, the only person in this story facing a serious threat to her safety and security is the girl who might have to serve a prison sentence — but then, she doesn’t go to Bartow High anymore, so perhaps the school system doesn’t think she counts.”

Kiera Wilmot’s story raises a series of troubling questions. This could happen to any student. Classmates, the Principal and the student herself clarified this was no act of malevolence, but school administrators and law enforcement pursued charges to ensure “safety and security”. Have this nation’s schools become such mindless, bureaucratic prisons that all reason is forfeit?

This case affirms the argument presented by Cevin Soling’s compelling documentary, War on Kids:

“Public schools have essentially been turned into prisons with constant surveillance and harsh, often absurd zero tolerance policies towards drugs, alcohol, weapons, violence and other forms of misbehavior. Things that would’ve earned you a visit with a counselor or the principal can now get you expelled.”

Zero tolerance policies can be effective, but all involved seem to indicate this was a mistake, an act of curiosity gone wrong. Does this not set a precedent that even if no one is injured, the very possibility of injury warrants ruining a 16-year old student’s life? Since when do innocent accidents warrant prison sentences?

How do Polk County bureaucrats have the power to ruin a child’s life over an honest mistake? Why are school administrators no longer serving their community and their students, but lording over schools like wardens? How are teachers expected to inspire and challenge students under such stifling conditions? Where is the community of Bartow in response to this overreaction that could result in a bright young woman being thrown into jail?

Silly risks should not be encouraged, but unreasonable, ridiculous responses like this send a frightening message to curious students: step out of line, make a mistake and you and your parent’s lives can be ruined. If this is the punishment for experimentation, how can we expect the current educational paradigm to produce more Ben Franklins, or Nicola Teslas?

Does America not need more scientists and engineers? Isn’t the reality of science perpetual failure until discovery? How many of the bright minds of tomorrow are stifled by fear of cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of bureaucrats? Should we emphasize that one bad decision determines a lifetime of punishment, such as being deemed a felonious criminal?

Perhaps the best punishment for this exceptional student would have been a lengthy assignment detailing safety measures. If necessary, perhaps an essay explaining what she learned with a thorough plan to not repeat risky experiments again without closer teacher supervision. Perhaps, if administrators were interested in their student’s future and less about the momentary thrill of exercising power over others, Wilmot could have been encouraged to pursue a track in science.

Schools across America should be places for students to explore their curiosity safely and wisely. Educating our students on precautionary measures when accidents occur cultivates wonder while minimizing risk. Reprimanding dangerous behavior appropriately should be our focus as an advanced, civilized society.

We should all be outraged when low-level bureaucrats reprimand accidental, harmless mistakes with life-destroying felony charges. To contact Hazel Sellers, the Board Chair and Director for Polk County’s Bartow High School, follow the hyperlink for her public contact information. Change.org also has a petition urging the felony charges be dropped.

A simple note to Ms. Sellers from Wilmot’s fellow Americans could make a difference for the promising student facing incarceration for curiosity.

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