Science experiments don't always go the way they are intended. A 16-year-old Florida teenager knows this all too well.
This week Kiera Wilmot went to school and mixed some household chemicals in a tiny eight-ounce water bottle. It looked like a simple chemistry project, but then the top popped off when a small explosion occurred.
Wilmot, who is in good standing as a student, said it was an accident. The Bartow High School principal told a local television station that the teen made a “bad choice” and called her a a good kid who has never previously been in trouble.
“Honestly, I don't think she meant to ever hurt anyone,” Principal Ron Pritchard told a Tampa Bay television station. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked too.”
In another era, Wilmot may have gotten scolded and sent back to class. But in this age of zero-tolerance policies, Wilmot is in deep trouble. She was arrested on Monday morning after the incident and charged with possession and discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device.
In turn, she was expelled and will finish her high school years in an expulsion program.
“This situation is a poignant example of the absurdity of zero tolerance and the over-use of police intervention in schools” Dr. Kathleen Nolan, the author of Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School and a lecturer at Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, told TakePart.
“Tragically, this young woman, all because of what appears to have been misguided curiosity, now faces expulsion and felony charges, which could negatively impact her future opportunities and alter the course of her life,” she said. “The policies are particularly pernicious for African-Americans and other young people of color as research shows these groups are disproportionately targeted by zero-tolerance policies and subject to harsher treatment once involved in the criminal justice system.”
Zero-tolerance policies in schools began in 1994 after Congress required states to adopt laws that guaranteed one-year expulsions for students who brought firearms to school. In order for states to receive federal funding, leaders had to adopt these laws. All 50 states did so.
“The criminal justice paradigm, under which zero tolerance operates, strips educators of decision-making powers and discretion,” Nolan said. “It forces otherwise caring and thinking adults to respond to incidents in unthinking and often destructive ways.”
Earlier this year, a five-year-old Pennsylvania girl was suspended from kindergarten after she told another girl she was going to shoot her with a Hello Kitty toy gun that blows soapy bubbles. School officials told the girl’s parents she had made a terrorist threat.
Honor students have often been expelled or suspended for such infractions as having possession of a bottle of soda mixed with a few drops of alcohol or having pain relievers such as Midol and Tylenol, or even cough drops. Other students have ended up in serious trouble for bringing antiques that contain tiny knives to school for show and tell.
In the Florida case, Kelly Welch, a Villanova University criminal justice professor, said the story is “just another example of schools handling normal acts of juvenile misbehavior with extraordinarily harsh measures that more closely resemble the exclusion inherent to criminal justice rather than restorative discipline in school.”
Some schools, however, have started to realize the negative effects of such harsh discipline for nonviolent infractions. Policies, in turn, are changing.
Last month, the Buffalo, New York, school district voted to say goodbye to zero-tolerance policies that result in suspensions. Instead, the district will focus more on intervention and prevention, conflict resolution, counseling referrals and restorative justice.
In Fresno, California, the school district’s superintendent has decided to focus funding toward district-wide restorative justice programs.
This week, in Louisiana, the state House Education Committee approved a bill to counter zero tolerance and allow educators more flexibility in disciplinary measures.
“There must be a way for schools to address violations of school policies that do not have the harmful effects of criminalizing students,” Welch said. “Research shows that students who have been expelled and charged with felonies have a much greater likelihood of receiving a diminished education going forward, and may also have more encounters with the criminal justice system.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com