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Kiera Wilmot: How Her Arrest and Expulsion Exposes America's Racial Discipline Gap

Sixteen-year-old Kiera Wilmot was conducting a science experiment on the grounds of Bartow High School in Florida. It was early in the morning, 7 a.m, school had not started yet. Would her hypothesis be proved accurate? Would mixing aluminum foil and household toiled cleaner in a bottle produce smoke? Yes, but it would also cause a small explosion that caused the top of the water bottle to pop off. Thankfully, no one was hurt and no damage was done. So why was she arrested and expelled? 

The Miami New Times reports that following the experiment Wilmot was taken into custody by one of the schools resource officers. She was charged with possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. After that she was taken to a juvenile assessment center where she was told she was expelled. Wilmot will be tried as an adult.

The Polk County School released the following statement: 

Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious 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.

A serious breach of conduct? As Feministings’ Sesali Bowen rightfully points out, the schools code of conduct states that an individuals intention is a factor in determining whether or not a breach of a rule has been committed or not. Even the principal has acknowledged that Kiera didn’t mean to hurt anyone and that she just wanted to see what would happen when the chemicals mixed. 

Kiera has never been in trouble at school, she has straight A's and loves science. She confessed to everything as soon school officials began to question her. Data shows that African American students are subject to more harsh discipline in public schools than their white counterparts. This data comes from the Department of Education which found that African-American students were 3-1/2 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Seventy percent of students arrested referred to law enforcement are African American or Latino.   

When I was in high school, I accidentally rear ended a teacher’s car at a stop light. I didn’t mean to do it and I just continued on my merry way, not knowing if I should pull over or not. In my first period class, the schools police resource officer came to talk to me. We went into his office where he explained that that I could have been charged with leaving the scene of an accident and of failing to reduce speed in order to avoid an accident. He then told me that despite this, I wouldn't be charged with anything. He never cited a specific reason for this. See what happened there is that my guilt was not predetermined, in fact, I was presumed innocent. That's because white suburban girls only make mistakes. African American girls make bad decisions. See the difference?

This case is also incredibly disturbing for what it means for science education, for promoting experimentation. Science is tricky, it's meant to be. It damn near requires you to make mistakes, sometimes horrible mistakes sometimes in order to advance. Does that mean she should have been conducting an experiment without supervision? No, but nor should she be criminalized for life for this accident. DNLee is a biologist who wrote a wonderful blog for Scientific American and what she says crystallizes the argument here much better than I ever could. 

Her expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color: Don’t try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you! I can’t name a single scientist or engineer, who hadn’t blown up, ripped apart, disassembled something at home or otherwise cause a big ruckus at school all in the name of curiosity, myself included. Science is not a clean. It is very messy and it is riddled with mistakes and mishaps.

In our 5th grade biology class, a kid dropped a mercury filled thermometer onto the floor,it shattered, spilling the mercury everywhere. A wing of the school had to be evacuated and a hazmat team was called in to clean up the spill. That child was not expelled. Why? Because everyone knew that science IS messy. We are by nature a curious being. For goodness sakes, we circle the Earth at 17,500 MPH in the very name of curiosity, of better understanding ourselves and our position within this universe. This should not be discouraged in the name of setting an example.

If this story doesn’t outrage you, if you can’t see the injustice in the way Kiera Wilmot has been treated, than you need to open your eyes. 

Here is what some actual scientists have to say about the case:

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