Kiera Wilmot, sixteen-year-old student in Bartow, Florida has been expelled and is currently facing felony charges for what many are calling “scientific curiosity.” Ten days ago, at 7 a.m. on the grounds of Bartow High School and before classes began, Wilmot conducted what she called “a science fair experiment,” where she mixed toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a plastic water bottle. This chemical reaction, which has been popularized through hundreds of YouTube videos, produces a small, generally unimpressive explosion – resulting in a loud “pop” and smoke. However, Wilmot’s “experiment,” was both seen and heard by the school’s principal, and the police were called after determining that Wilmot’s science teacher had no knowledge of the experiment. As a result, Wilmot was both expelled from Bartow and has been charged by police for possession of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device.
Wilmot’s experiment has now stirred quite a lot of debate over whether she deserves her harsh punishment or not. Though Wilmot did not intend to hurt anyone, and no one was injured in the slightest, her actions directly violate Section 7.05 of the school’s conduct code, which calls for expulsion for any “student in possession of a bomb (or) explosive devise…while at school (or) a school-sponsored activity…unless the material or device is being used as part of a legitimate school-related activity or science project conducted under the supervision of an instructor.” In addition, this is Wilmot’s first ever offense. Principal Ron Pritchard told WTSP-TV that “She is a good kid. She has never been in trouble before. Ever.” Wilmot reportedly learned about this experiment through a friend and “thought it would just cause some smoke.”
The main controversy over this case is based on whether Wilmot’s punishment is too harsh for her actions. 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, “This young woman faces expulsion, felony charges and a criminal record because of what appears to be misguided curiosity. These zero-tolerance laws have put into place a mindlessness where individuals no longer think through these kind of situations and use their discretion.”
Other comments sent to the Miami New Times were mixed. Some believe that the punishment is an overreaction and unnecessary, others believe that Wilmot’s actions were rash, dangerous, and the punishment is called for. In addition, the assistant state prosecutor Tammy Glotfelty who directed police to charge Wilmot has been accused of holding a double standard. Just three days after Wilmot was charged, Glotfelty declined to prosecute a thirteen-year-old boy who killed his younger brother with a BB gun, stating, “it is our opinion that this case can only be seen as a tragic accident.” Wilmot is able to challenge her expulsion, but her felony charges are still under investigation.
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