It’s tempting to ride my moral high horse regarding the Kiera Wilmot situation but on second thoughts I’ve decided to dismount. For those who are not familiar with the situation, Kiera Wilmot went to her Florida school on Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 and attempted a science experiment—unauthorized and in the school yard which resulted in an explosion that sounded like a firecracker going off. Shortly afterwards she found herself arrested, taken away in handcuffs, and expelled from school. She was charged on two felony charges (I believe) and will be tried as an adult.
As for the experiment, Wilmot brought a plastic bottle to school and, before classes started, decided to pour into it a quantity of household plumbing cleaner (Drano) and added a piece of aluminum foil resulting in smoke and an explosion that bystanders described as sounding like a firecracker. No one was injured and there was no damage. According to all the reports I’ve seen so far, Wilmot gets good grades and has never been in trouble.
Here’s the quote that Kyle Murzenrieder obtained for his Apr. 26, 2013 posting [as far as I can determine the incident occurred on Apr. 29 but, mysteriously, Murzenrieder’s posting is dated prior to that) on the Miami (Florida) New Times blog,
“She made a bad choice. Honestly, I don’t think she meant to ever hurt anyone,” principal Ron Pritchard told the station [local Miami tv station WTSP]. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked, too.”
The story has attracted international attention. Richard Luscombe in a May 2, 2013 story for the UK’s Guardian newspaper recounts the events and provides a perspective from a US educator of educators,
The unsupervised experiment on school grounds ended with Wilmot, 16, led away to a juvenile detention facility in handcuffs, expelled and charged as an adult with felony possession of a weapon and making or discharging a destructive device, with a possible penalty of up to 20 years in jail.
The episode has pitted campaigners for a common-sense approach to school discipline against an unrepentant school district that insists it is just following rules, warning parents to advise their children that there will always be “consequences to actions”.
“This is totally insane,” Dr Kathleen Nolan, a lecturer in teacher preparation at Princeton University and author of Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School told the Guardian.
Steven D, a retired lawyer (not licenced to practice in Florida), provides a legal perspective on the charges Wilmot is facing in his May 2, 2013 posting on the Daily Kos,
Was Kiera’s science experiment a “destructive device” that she willingly made, possessed and intended to use as such?
In Florida, a person commits a felony when he or she “willfully and unlawfully makes, possesses, throws, projects, places, discharges, or attempts to make, possess, throw, project, place, or discharge any destructive device.”
No report I’ve seen suggests that her the result of her “experiment” caused any bodily harm to anyone or any property damage. However, for the sake for argument let’s concede that her science experiment was a destructive device. That doesn’t end the inquiry, however, regarding her guilt. You see the law clearly states that for Kiera to be guilty of a felony, she must have both constructed her “destructive device,” and used it, willfully and unlawfully. In short, the issue of her intent again appears, and it should give any prosecutor pause before pursuing felony charges against this young woman. Why? Because she herself has stated she just wanted to see what would happen when she mixed the aluminum foil strips with the chemicals in her toilet cleaner. ….
It’s well worth reading the full piece for the way Steven D. breaks down the language used in the laws under which Wilmot is being charged and examines the case. If I understand his points correctly, the prosecutor will have a very hard time proving there was any attempt to harm or cause damage to anyone or anything, which is what those laws are designed to discourage.
Scientific American is covering this evolving situation in a number of ways. Ashutosh Jogalekar (Ashutosh [Ash] Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science, according to the description on his blog, The Curious Wavefunction; a member of the Scientific American blog network) wrote an essay on science, scientific query, youth, and Kiera Wilmot titled, America hates science, for Scientific American which was also published on Salon.com (Note: Links have been removed),
She [Wilmot] definitely deserved to be reprimanded and perhaps even punished in some way, maybe by putting her on probation. But when you arrest and expel students for slaking their scientific curiosity, whatever the other consequences of that action, be advised that you are almost certainly sacrificing a valuable scientist at the altar of arbitrarily wielded state and school power.
The latest incident however is only a reflection of, on one hand, the draconian measures that our educational and political institutions are taking to achieve the ostensible goal of “disciplining” American children, and on the other hand, the public obsession with chemophobia and “chemicals”. The absurdly named “chemical free” chemistry sets are already depriving students of the joy of chemistry. When I was growing up my chemistry set had a lot of potentially harmful chemicals like copper sulfate and potassium ferricyanide. On every bottle there were clear labels advising us of the hazards of that particular chemical, antidotes against poisoning and the phone number of the poison center. None of these labels deterred me or my parents, and the set opened up the wonderful world of chemistry to me.
Society’s ardent wish to enforce this principle of maximum precaution – whether it involves reacting to terrorism or to school pranks – is turning schools into straitjacketed environments with armed guards and law enforcement where misdemeanors, pranks and honest mistakes that would have gotten a student detention twenty years ago are leading instead to arrests and expulsions. The school environment in many states has turned into an overactive immune system.
Jogalekar is expressing a sentiment echoed not only by Dr. Kathleen Nolan in Luscombe’s UK Guardian story but elsewhere too, as per Tim Elfrink’s May 2, 2013 posting for the Miami New Times,
As the tale of Kiera Wilmot — the Bartow, Florida student expelled and charged with two felonies over a science project gone wrong — went viral yesterday, a wide movement to support the 16-year-old blossomed from blogs to radio shows to Change.org petitions. Best of all, though, has been a Twitter campaign by scientists and science fans with a simple premise: writing about the craziest stuff they’ve blown up over the years, all in the name of science. [emphasis mine]
The difference, of course, is that they were congratulated on their curiosity or slapped on the wrist, not hit with life-altering felonies.
Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science blog has started at least one of the Twitter campaigns (this is the tag: #KieraWilmot) and you can find his commentary about the situation and tweets here on Storify.
While I am in agreement that the response to Wilmot’s ill-advised experiment is an extraordinary overreaction, I can understand the impact the act of setting off an explosive device in a schoolyard a scant two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing incident (April 15, 2013) where four people were killed (including one of the bombers) and many others injured likely had on the authorities. The timing is spectacularly bad and points to a degree of self-absorption that one might expect of a 16-year-old.
That said, I think rather than trying Wilmot as an adult on two felony charges for a science experiment, it might be more useful to involve the community (Wilmot and her family, the other school children, the teachers, the administrators, and the parents) and have them review Wilmot’s actions and determine the appropriate response to her transgression.
Laws are meant to help us maintain social order. It seems to me that the spirit of the laws under which Wilmot is being charged is aimed at protecting the community from violence and harm and that spirit is being violated although authorities may be following the rule of law. Wilmot is a member of the community and she is being harmed by an unthinking response from adults who really should know better.
ETA May 3, 2013 4:45 pm PDT: Here’s a petition you can sign, if you are so inclined: https://www.change.org/petitions/polk-county-state-s-attorney-drop-felony-charges-against-16-year-old-kiera-wilmot