On April 22, Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old public school student in Bartow, Florida did what any kid with an ounce of curiosity does: She performed an experiment. Like many acts of science, however, it didn’t go as planned.
Wilmot allegedly mixed a few household chemicals in an eight-ounce water bottle, capped the lid, set it down, and stood back to watch, according to local news reports. She expected a little smoke to appear. Instead the top blew off and made a firecracker-like bang.
No one was hurt. No property was damaged. She didn’t even run away. The principal’s eyewitness account, along with those of Wilmot’s friends and schoolmates, all suggest she was simply satisfying her curiosity on school property before classes began. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did,” Bartow High School principal Ron Pritchard told 9news.com.
Despite praising Wilmot as a “good kid” who has “never been in trouble before,” Polk County Public Schools trumpeted its zero-tolerance policies and called the police. They arrested Wilmot and charged her with two felonies. Now expelled, Wilmot may be forced to finish her education in a juvenile facility and graduate with a permanent record.
A big part of the problem here is fear. Schools have allowed it to guide student codes of conduct that ignore what science is, how it works, and the importance of experimentation in inspiring influential researchers. I’m specifically reminded of a piece called “Don’t Try This At Home” by Steve Silberman, who reported on the increasing criminalization of garage chemistry.
The story ran seven years ago this month but is still surprisingly relevant. Silberman explores how and why chemistry kits and education became so toothless. As part of his reporting, he highlights prodigious scientists who owe their success to foolish childhood experimentation. Gordon Moore, who pioneered the integrated circuit and co-founded Intel, for example, created and detonated his own dynamite at age 11. David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and father of Silicon Valley, proudly manufactured gunpowder as a kid. (Thomas Edison should have been in there, too — he performed enough dangerous feats to fill his biographies.)
Other brainiacs regale us on the importance of backyard chemistry in leading to fruitful science careers, including neurologist Oliver Sacks, Don “Mr. Wizard” Herbert, Popular Science‘s own Theodore Gray, and Roald Hoffmann, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “There’s no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids … to science,” says Hoffmann in Silberman’s story. “Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out.”
Silberman convincingly argues that fear of lawsuits (by manufacturers and teachers alike) have led U.S. educators to shy away from teaching science that poses any degree of danger. Schools have codified those fears in zero-tolerance policies that reject context and reason in delivering punishment. Suddenly, a popping soda bottle that hurts no one becomes a life-threatening explosive device.
Did Wilmot make a mistake? Yes. Should she carry two felonious charges into her adult life? No.
Kids are kids. Their futures ride on trying, failing, and learning from mistakes. Much of that happens during personal experimentation, and schools should equip them to do it responsibly, whether or not it happens on school property.
Sure, dangerous behaviors deserve punishment. But it’s time we stop creating and acting on zero-tolerance school policies to dole them out. We need to treat kids as kids and give them a fair shake by weighing context, reason, and maturity — not brand them as criminals when they create “stinks and bangs,” either accidentally or intentionally, for experimentation’s sake.