Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Florida Teen is Charged with Felony Because of a Science Experiment. Fair?

Ok, ok I get it. We are all understandably on edge because of the horrible Boston bombings and we are still reeling from what feels like constant attacks on our schools with premeditated, planned attacks that have changed the way we look at the world. Kids, LITERAL KIDS are getting their hands on semiautomatic weaponry and using them to get back at a world that has somehow, in their eyes, let them down or done them wrong. Malicious members of a disgruntled society are throwing hand grenades at cops and these actions are threatening the safety and peace of mind of each and every of us. It’s fucking ridiculous. It’s terrifying. I totally hear ya. It feels like the world has turned in to an action adventure movie but the leading man is Zach Galifianakis and he’s just not even being funny so we call in Tom Cruise for back up but he just stands there trying to fix things with his mind and you’re like WTF I asked for an action hero NOT a Scientologist and so all you can do is patiently wait for Scarlett Johansson to come in and fix things.

And so while we were waiting for Scarlett, 16 year old Kiera Wilmot went to school, mixed some common items that you would find in your house (toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum) in an 8oz water bottle, closed the bottle, the contents expanded, caused the lid to pop off and there was a little smoke. And so Kiera is put in handcuffs and charged with a felony crime- possession and discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. She is reportedly going to be tried as an adult.

Sounds reasonable. Oh wait, what? You sure about that? What’s that you ask? Was anyone hurt? No. Was it just a science experiment? She says yes, and her principal agrees.

Quoted from the Miami News report:

“She made a bad choice. Honestly, I don’t think she meant to ever hurt anyone,” principal Ron Pritchard told the station. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked, too.”

Kiera Wilmot
High School student Kiera Wilmot who was expelled and charged with a felony for a science experiment.

So why was this girl arrested? Overreact much Bart High School? Nope, they say that kids need to learn that “there are consequences to their actions.” And even though the principal agreed that she made a bad choice and did not mean to hurt anyone she had to be expelled because there are rules. She was to be made an example of.

If you get good grades and try a science experiment and you are a young black woman we will not only expel you but also have you charged with a felony and tried as an adult. OH, sorry I typed what I was thinking again. My mistake. I’m sure the color of Kiera’s skin had nothing to do with the severity of her punishment. And while I absolutely agree that there should be consequences to actions and we need to work much harder at keeping our schools safe, I think that the reaction to this alleged crime was unnecessarily severe. But that’s just my opinion.

Here is the official police report.

What do you guys think? Is this a reasonable response by Bart High School and law enforcement? Are there any scientists who at one time or another did NOT explode something in science class? Is this the way to prevent future violence in schools or just a way to prevent future scientists? Could racism have played a role in the severity of the punishment? Do you think Kiera knew she was doing something wrong or had any intent to cause harm? Does any of this matter, because rules must be enforced?

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The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm

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Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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50 Comments

  1. whether it is a big dinosaur, a starry sky or a wild chemical reaction it is the big show that first attracts us to science. When I was her age I found a book on pyrotechnics on my fathers shelf. My father being a high school science teacher brought me home kilo size containers of chemicals to make my own fireworks. The only difference between her and me is that I had a side yard to test my experiments in.

    She needs guidance and encouragement not over reaction.

  2. Mixing chemicals and placing them in closed containers, when you don’t know the possible results, are not “science-experiments” kids should be doing, and is not comparable to “exploding something in science class”, except of course when “exploding something in science class” is actually dangerous negligence. But unless someone had to be rushed off to hospital the proper reaction to kids doing stupid things should be a trip to the principal, not handcuffs and incarceration.

    Overblown response or not, this is in no way a bar to future scientists who should be bright enough to understand that bottle bombs of all designs are potentially lethal devices.

      1. I agree. Considering the issue more carefully I don’t think poor risk assessment at 16 is a good indicator for poor risk assessment in adulthood and what I meant to convey was really that unsupervised and unresearched experimentation with potentially violently exothermic reactions is not a necessary step on the road to a career in science, and that discouraging such behaviour is not likely to prevent potential scientists to become actual scientists. At least as long as supervised and researched experimentation with violently exothermic reactions of known magnitude is supplied. (And if it’s well researched and performed away from school doing away with supervision isn’t an issue for me either.)

    1. I’m an actual scientist who, when I was her age, was making (small) actual bombs with home-made gunpowder, and detonating them safely in a field far from anyone. No one ever got hurt, but, still, it was stupid. I’d advise any kid/student not to do likewise. But if I’d been arrested for doing it, it might well have prevented me from becoming a scientist, and caused me a good many other problems in life too.

      I feel terrible about what’s happening to this girl. Is there any kind of letter-writing campaign we could conduct to raise the profile of this situation and help her?

  3. I was even younger when I built a hairspray combustion powered potato launcher out of PVC plumbing and the igniter off a gas grill. Depending on where you live, that may actually be illegal. All I got was concern for my safety from my parents and school science teacher. That concern was well placed and in retrospect I probably should have had a bit more of a hard time getting away with it, although in the end no one ever got hurt. In my personal anecdotal experience budding interest in science correlates with somewhat risky and potentially explosive childhood experimentation.

    So I’m willing to trust her and her school principal on this. At school and unsupervised is probably not the context in which all that should be happening, though. If I were in charge I’d probably have her writing a lab report after some supervised and controlled reproductions of the experiment and issue a firm warning about safety. Expulsion and criminal charges (as an adult? seriously?) are complete overreactions.

  4. I’d be okay with the girl getting detention or whatever the next step up is for ‘improper use of chemicals’. Teaching kids lab safety is important, and one aspect of that is ‘do your experiments in appropriate places with safety equipment present and knowing what to do if shit happens’. But the other half of that lesson is that the reason we have labs* is so you can safely do experiments that you can’t do at home/in the yard — that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know what happens if you aren’t going to hurt yourself or others finding out.

    I’m not okay with her being charged with a felony for being a teenager doing something stupid. I am many time more not okay with her being tried as an adult when the very reason the juvenile court system exists is because children and teens often don’t show good judgement and long-term planning, and that qualifies as a hell of a special circumstance.

    * As a catch-all term for scientific facilities used for experiments, so I’d include outside places where you can safely detonate things.

  5. I guess I’m just hesitant to blow off someone just making a little bomb on school grounds during school hours because they feel like it.

    That she claims this is a science fair project (that no one knew about!!!) seems like a huge red flag that she’s hiding SOMETHING… because that’s not how science fair projects work, and she also claims that she didn’t know what would happen…. so without researching it (coming up with that important component of an honor student’s science project: the hypothesis) she just packed some fucking draino in her backpack, a bunch of foil and headed off TO SCHOOL and was like LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS LOL! FOR SCIENCE! LOL! That’s not how anyone, even a high schooler, does science.

    I actually wonder if anyone would be upset that this was all going down if she weren’t a black female student. I want to support women, and especially women of color, in STEM but being all “yeah, bombs sometimes happen” is not the way. If this was a dude, we wouldn’t be coddling him based on the fact that he’s all “but SCIENCE!”

    Something fucked up happened here. She deserves a severe punishment. But what that punishment is, I can’t even begin to comment on until an investigation provides me with answers like “WTF HAPPENED?” and “WTH IS WRONG WITH YOU?” and “WHY IN THE EVER LOVING FUCK WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT A GOOD COVER STORY IS ‘BUT MY FRIEND TOLD ME IT WASN’T A BOMB! AND I WAS DOING SCIENCE BUT DON’T ASK MY TEACHERS CUZ IT’S SECRET SCIENCE FOR A SCIENCE FAIR NO ONE ELSE KNOWS ABOUT.'”

    {end disjointed rant]

    1. They were clearly trying to frame her. I’m familiar with this type of “bomb”, It makes noise. I’m not endorsing letting one of these go off in your hand, but if one does it’s unlikely you’ll have a superficial injury bad enough that your mom will ask questions, let alone an actual injury. The “explosion” is the cap coming off because there’s too much pressure in the bottle. It’s more serious than a shaken up bottle of soda, but much less serious than if she had, say, brought in a sparkler.

      I’m pretty sure she’s not being entirely honest, but it’s not like she has a moral obligation to be truthful. Her only obligation is to self preservation. She shouldn’t have explained herself at all. It’s never a good idea to talk to the police.

  6. That’s ridiculous. Mixing chemicals to see what they do is textbook for a science-minded kid; my friends and I did it all the time. She wasn’t making a bomb to hurt someone, she was experimenting. I don’t know what justice is being served by this – are they teaching children not to experiment with chemicals unless they already know the result? Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

    1. I agree that it’s textbook for a science minded kid, but she can’t claim it’s a science project, because that’s not how science projects work. She’s doing science in the same way my two year old is doing science when he shakes the container of dog food to see what kind of noises it will make when it hits the floor. But it’s not a science project.

    1. Well, if SHE says she meant no harm, then it’s probably totally true. No way a teen who just got busted for building a bomb on school grounds then lying about her reason for doing it would lie about any other aspect of it.

      1. I think you are adding a lot of ill intent where there is no evidence to justify it. “Building a bomb” and standing away from people and combining ingredients in a water bottle are two different activities. I don’t think there is any reason to attach criminal intent to this young woman’s actions. Was it a bad idea, yes. Did she have malicious intent? It would appear, no.

  7. I find it hard to justify calling this a “destructive device” when every writeup I’ve seen at least implies that the bottle remained intact. It was apparently about as violent as if she’d shaken up a half-full bottle of warm Coke. Charges were filed immediately. According to the link below, the same Florida prosecutor declined, after having a month to investigate, to file any charges at all against a 13-year-old white boy who killed his 10-year-old brother by shooting him in the head with a BB gun. From another article I checked, “After a thorough review of the facts, available to our office at this time, it is our opinion that this case can only be seen as a tragic accident,” Glotfelty wrote.”

    The boy’s parents are “thrilled” by her decision.

    http://raniakhalek.com/2013/05/02/prosecutor-behind-kiera-wilmot-arrest-filed-no-charges-for-white-teen-who-killed-little-brother/

  8. WHY DIDNT YOU PEOPLE TELL ME THERE WAS A FUNNY TYPO. It said throwing GRANDEES at cops. I meant GRENADES. Who could be upset if people were throwing high-ranking Spanish nobleman around? Anyway, I fixed it.

  9. What’s next? An overly “enthusiastic” baking soda and vinegar volcano reaction classified as a WMD?

    Sure, it was a dumb thing to do and this kid could have certainly used a couple of days of detention or even suspension. But this sounds like the sort of “school to prison pipeline” that especially targets young people of color.

  10. What we have here is a War on the Unusual. When someone behaves in a way that doesn’t fit the statistical bland norm of behavior we’ve come to expect, we find it suspicious.

    A kid blows up a water bottle on school grounds? Normal kids don’t do that; arrest her! MIT student wears an electronic project to pick someone up at the airport? Normal people don’t do that; arrest her! Lite-brites put up in Boston for a viral ad? That’s weird. Shut. Everything. Down.

    It’s why photographers get arrested for photographing a subway or a building.

    Plus: a black kid being a nerd? Now *that’s* unusual.

  11. My gut says give the girl a slap on the wrist and use this as an opportunity to teach her more about science, labs and chemistry. As a holder of a B.Sc. In chemistry I hope she pursues her interests!

    1. Now there’s a hell of an idea. “Oh, it’s a science experiment? How about you spend the summer learning more about chemistry?” If she lied, it’s punishment. If she’s honestly curious, reward!

      1. Exactly! I think it would work out nicely. Either that or she will turn into the Evil Midnight Bomber (that’s an attempt to reference the Tick not a reference to current events).

          1. An object at rest, cannot be stopped!

            Excuse me…excuse me…and then I says tell me I’m wrong, and he says I can’t baby ’cause you’re not !

            This could happen to you, baby…this could happen to anybody!

            And so he says, I don’t like the cut of your jib, and I go, I says it’s the only jib I got, baby!

            Best super villain ever!

  12. What should have been a teaching moment — an opportunity to encourage her curiosity about chemistry — was instead turned into a torture session. Actions have consequences and the consequences of the boneheaded school administrators’ actions in this case should be that they be fired and replaced with people who are actually interested in and qualified to teach children. Stories like this are what are making Florida and the US south in general a laughing stock in the rest of the world.

  13. No punishment is necessary here. Instead, she should be recruited for a science club (chemistry?). The worst that should be done is a discussion of the current tension in high schools and why such things should be done at home.

    Arresting her has done damage to her ability to be recruited to college, which is a goddamn high price to pay for curiosity. If she were white or a white male, she’d be a genius–obviously, she needs supervision, but the willingness to get experimental is a good sign for interest in science. I personally dissected everything I could get my hands on for my microscope kit (in addition to cutting myself to see blood cells). Wandering the neighborhood with baggies and a scalpel is suspicious behavior, is it not?

    If I were in school now, would have been arrested repeatedly by now for suspicious behavior like finishing my homework before the teacher was done introducing it and pulling out a book to read it, or for messing around in the photo lab as the student assistant who mixed the chemical baths, or for fighting, or for amusing myself because I was bored to death by my classes by sketching my classmates, or reading the class book collection, or loitering in the halls because I was done with the class before the teacher had time to finish discussing the subject.

    Hell, I even set up a business tutoring in junior high, which expanded into a certain amount of minor forgery (parent’s signatures and the like). I’m considered a productive member of society. I wonder how much of that is the fact that I’m white.

  14. Hmmm? Aluminum foil and lye? Why does that ring a bell? Oh yeah, that sounds like the experiment my best friend conducted in science class when we were in 6th grade. He demonstrated the experiment with the teacher beforehand: a glass container with a rubber stopper and glass tube to exhaust the hydrogen. Then they lit the expelled gas to show it was actually hydrogen. The teacher approved the experiment and they arranged to show the experiment to the class the next day. The resulting explosion sent glass shards everywhere, broke the blackboard, and sent six kids to the hospital.
    The following Monday, a new blackboard had been installed, the teacher was back at work, and we were back in class. Of course, this all occurred thrity-five years ago when the word “accident” still had exculpatory power.

  15. I’m guessing the prosecutor has seen too many movies where the baddie is a deranged scientist or s/he is up for reelection. Conversely not intending harm or being ignorant of a particular law is rarely an effective defense strategy. And especially when those who were put at risk were minors in a school. I would hope there is a plea deal where a misdemeanor juvenile charge of something like criminal negligence is offered to her.

  16. I’m still trying to see how criminal prosecution for children making bad choices can be workable in our society. I dare say that many of us posting on this topic would probably have a rap sheet following us around if we were prosecuted for not fully appreciating the possible damage we could have caused (or, indeed, did cause) by our actions as children. Naivete defines childhood.
    Even if this girl knew what chemical reaction to expect (and I personally think she knew exactly what gas would be produced), there’s just no evidence she either considered it particularly harmful or that she intended harm. She acted with childish naivete. She needs coaching, not incarcerating.

    1. So when dummy Dave thinks it would be funny as hell to roll a very large pumpkin down a hill on Halloween because it seems hilarious and harmless, some of us may agree that it may be amusing. The older woman walking out of her house to get the mail that happens to be struck by the pumpkin and falls breaking her hip wasn’t very amused. So because Dave was an innocent and playful youth with no malice or intent to cause harm you don’t think he shouldn’t get charged with criminal reckless behavior, and instead perhaps he should be referred for some counseling or a firm talking to?? She put people, including herself, at risk in an irresponsible manner and while I don’t agree with the adult felony charge in many jurisdictions as a juvenile first offender she would be offered a diversion program that involved some community service and the charge would be expunged and no conviction would be on her record.

      1. If you drive recklessly and get caught, you’re cited (or charged) with reckless driving. If you drive recklessly and kill someone, you get charged with reckless driving and vehicular homicide. You don’t get charged with vehicular homicide just because you drove recklessly because you might have killed someone. You have to actually kill them.

        If Dave rolls a pumpkin down the hill and hits the old woman, he’s charged appropriately for hitting the old woman. If he rolls the pumpkin down the hill and hits no one, he doesn’t get charged with assault because he MIGHT have hit someone.

        The girl in this story did something stupid and dangerous, yet didn’t actually hurt anyone and in fact there’s no actual evidence she intended to hurt someone. But the punitive theory is equivalent to charging Dave with assault even if the pumpkin hit no one or charging a reckless driver with murder just because sometimes reckless driving results in death.

        This is the world we’ve made. We react to everything like it’s the worst thing. We expel a nitwit for being a nitwit, because we’ve become a fearful society with a ravening need for retribution. We can no longer make a small mistake, because it will be treated like a big mistake. We craft zero tolerance policies because FREEDOM! (I guess, I mean who really knows why?) but all a zero tolerance policy does is show adults are unwilling or unable to use the very judgment we punish our children for not having. Who will they learn it from, if not us?

        What we teach them instead is to be frightened, reactive, and vengeful.

        Ah, America.

        1. The girl in the article should have done her experiment in her own back yard and not in a classroom putting people at risk. Reckless driving gets you a ticket for placing other motorists at risk, if pumpkin Dave had just missed the old lady he could have been charged reckless endangerment, and no one intends to get in an accident but it’s a fact that those who speed are more likely to get in accidents and that’s why they get tickets; and the last thing most officers say after handing you a ticket is “slow down” because they’ve seen too many busted up accident victims who started their drive with good intentions. Intent can matter, but more often than not intent has no bearing on responsibility, criminal or otherwise.

          1. What if she doesn’t have a back yard? Miami is pretty urban.

            I couldn’t find the original story (didn’t look too hard), but the police report says it occurred near the gazebo and lake at the eastern end of the campus.

            Google maps shows that behind (East) of the school, there are several large rectangular buildings with metal roofs and behind them there’s a large rectangular pond. There’s a square grassy area about 100′ x 100′ between 2 of the buildings, with a path on the east side and another 50′ of grass between the path and the lake. The gazebo is between the path and the lake. It looks like a relative safe and out-of-the way place to blow something up, though there’s a football field on the south side of the lake and a soccer field on the east side of the lake that would probably be better.

            I don’t think there’s enough information here to judge either her motives, or if she was lying or how dangerous it was.

          2. Reckless driving that leads to no injuries gets you a *ticket.* Not a felony charge. Not expulsion. Not anything on your permanent record which would make you unemployable twenty years in the future or keeps you from going to a good college.

            I don’t see anyone here saying that the young woman ought to have received no consequences whatsoever, but she hurt no one, caused no damage, has no history of similar behavior. Her curiosity led to mischief, her mischief should have earned her an appropriate school based disciplinary response, not an adult criminal charge that will follow her the rest of her life. Kids get referrals and suspensions for single events of mischief, they should get guidance as to why their behavior was wrong and redirection into more positive outlets, they should not be facing the sort of felony prison time reserved for adults with violent, anti-social patterns of behavior.

  17. If a kid drops a can of soda in a Florida school and it explodes… will that student be expelled and brought up on charges for detonating an explosive device? Will it make a difference if the kid is, shall we say, paler than Kiera Wilmot?

  18. Zero tolerance policies are the result of administrators opting for an easy fix so that they no longer are required to use judgement and common sense and evaluate each situation on its merits. Similar absurd policies have previously resulted in students being suspended for bringing Midol or Tylenol (no drugs!) or plastic knives to cut up lunch meat (no weapons!) to school.

    Should she have been punished? Most definitely.

    The danger with these “Works” bombs is the potential for outward spray of the caustic solution during the blast, injuring anyone foolish enough to be standing too close to the bottle when the rising internal pressure blows the bottle open. Someone could have been injured. It clearly was a foolish thing to do.

    However, the punishment should fit the “crime”. School suspension would seem far more appropriate that expulsion, and since there was clearly no maliciousness involved in her “experiment”, and since no one was actually injured, filing criminal charges is way over the top.

    But then, we’re dealing with Florida and an African American “offender”. Nuf said.

  19. When I was her age, I was doing much worse, and on school grounds no less. Now I’m a chemist. If we slapped all children caught making explosive devices with felony charges, let’s just say we would have far fewer chemists. I am quite skeptical of the claim that she had no idea what would happen. However, the word that best describes what she did is mischief. In a sane world, we punish mischievous children (and teens) in ways that seem like a big deal to them, but are really just intended to make them stop and think for a change. We don’t fuck up the rest of their lives by charging them as if they were terrorists.

  20. See, here’s the thing. Rules must be obeyed because they are the rules, and if the rules are broken it should be against the law and there should be a penalty against anybody who breaks the law. Are you all with me so far? But then if people continue to break the rules the rules must be made even harsher because too many people break the rules. More and harsher rules must be made to punish anybody who dares to break the new rules. Soon you need to have more prisons to hold all those who break the rules. Soon you have more people in prison than anywhere else in the world. Soon you need to have police permanently assigned to schools to enforce all the rules. Money must be found to accomplish all this even if the economy is tanked.
    Check out this link
    http://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/03/05/12269/controversy-over-cops-schools-flares-anew
    Does all this make sense?

  21. OK so I have found out a few things
    Soda bottle bombs are considered to be IED’s and possession carries a penalty of a $250,000 fine or 25 years imprisonment. (Is that Federal or State law?)
    The description of one such by the police was rudimentary “some sort of soda bottle with tin foil and a chemical catalyst” (tin? catalyst? – give me strength!)
    On one blog some commenter was banging on about how you could add nails and make it into a “dirty bomb” – which has to be the best example this week of hyperbole and hysteria coupled with epic ignorance.

    So in that sort of environment, with that sort of general ignorance, I wonder whether the cops or indeed the courts or the legislators can tell an IED from a science experiment? Is a bottle of Coke with a Mentos added a soda bomb? What sort of IED is it when the perpetrator deliberately sets it off while standing right next to it?

    A lot of discussion centers on the school policy that parents must sign which forbids “making or attempting to make a destructive device or bringing one onto school property”. If it was a destructive device, why was it let off outside and what was being destroyed? How close were the spectators and were they in fact informed participants, or completely ignorant or running away in fear?

    I want to know what quantities of materials were used and whether the bottle was sealed tight and wrapped with duct tape before we decide if it’s a bomb or an experiment.

  22. when i was a in highschool two friends of mine had a bottle of alcohol or gasoline (can’t remember) but it was almost empty. They were sitting next to one of the schools concrete walls/fences and they were joking around that they could set fire to the school (they didn’t). The principal saw them with the bottle and got them both suspended for a day.

  23. At the risk of being boring I have dug up a few more facts.
    Firstly the time of the incident was 1 hour before school started and the only other person anywhere near was a co-conspirator (?the instigator ?a boyfriend) so the possibility of innocent bystanders being hurt was ZERO.
    Secondly I weep at the chemical ignorance being shown around the net. This was NOT a Drano bomb using sodium hydroxide (lye) (which could indeed be made highly concentrated and caustic and produces a lot of heat). So Skeplit’s example is a bit misleading.
    This was toilet cleaner containing diluted hydrochloric acid. One commenter was saying he gets this cleaner on his skin all the time and only once when left on the skin for an hour did he ever get burned.
    The fact of hydrogen being produced may sometimes be an issue but only if a source of ignition is present which was not the case here.
    Damage caused amounted to one plastic bottle and cap.

    This incident should have been handled internally and punishment should be with detention and counselling not expulsion.
    Legislators need to get into the real world and put a lower limit on energy produced into the definitions of “IED”, “bomb” and “destructive device”.

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