02 May 2013

Felony experimentation

This story is, rightly, blowing up the science-y internet:

Kiera Wilmot got good grades and had a perfect behavior record. She wasn't the kind of kid you'd expect to find hauled away in handcuffs and expelled from school, but that's exactly what happened after an attempt at a science project went horribly wrong.

Wilmot apparently mixed some "household chemicals" together inside a small plastic bottle, producing a reaction that caused the bottle to explode. She told police that she meant it as a scientific experiment—clearly she was curious to see what would happen, which makes it an experiment in spirit, even if it didn't take place in a lab. The chemicals involved aren't specified, but anyone who grew up among nerdy teenagers probably remembers doing exactly this, and probably can recall the recipe. Trouble is, Wilmot did it on school grounds, outside of a supervised science class. And the response of the folks who run her school was totally fucking disproportionate:

After the explosion Wilmot was taken into custody by a school resources officer and charged with possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. She will be tried as an adult.

One of the people who might have something to say about this said this:

"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."

And now a sixteen-year-old girl with no prior behavioral problems and good grades is at risk of acquiring the kind of criminal record that screws up job interviews, credit checks, and applications to college. All for setting up an experiment you can see performed in any number of YouTube videos.

And, oh yeah, Kiera Wilmot is African American. DNLee digs into the sad, infuriating racial component of this whole sad, infuriating mess over at Scientific American, and this is really her wheelhouse. My only contribution to that part of the conversation is: I grew up in a rural, predominantly white, predominantly middle-class school district. Among my friends, when I was sixteen, were any number of white, male, middle-class kids who set up "experiments" far more dangerous than what we're told Kiera Wilmot did. They set off explosions with household chemicals, firecrackers, model rocket engines—and none of them were charged with felonies.

I'm pretty sure none of them would've been charged with felonies even if they'd set off one of these experiments on or near school grounds. Yes, they might've been suspended a day or two, or made to attend a safety lecture, but no one dismissed the destruction of their future with the blandly hateful accusation that they "made a bad choice."

Because they were white, teenaged, middle-class boys in a rural school district, and blowing things up was just what white, teenaged, middle-class boys did. Everyone knew that.

There is, at least, a Change.org petition. I'd suggest that you sign it.◼

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