Reasonable reactions to kids messing up in dangerous ways.

Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old Florida high school student, was expelled from her high school last week for mixing toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a plastic bottle on school grounds, creating some smoke and enough pressure to pop the cap off the bottle.

No property was damaged. No one was hurt.

Kiera described what she was doing as "conducting a science experiment" while the police described it as "possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device" -- both felonies.

While there has been a general increase in "zero tolerance" enforcement of policies by school systems, it is maybe not unimportant in the reaction in this case that Kiera Wilmot is African American. (For more on that, check out DNLee's post and the discussion at Black Skeptics.)

Schools, obviously, have reasonable concerns about students doing "freelance science" on school grounds, without supervision and without sufficient attention to issues like safety. And, there are sensible arguments that messing around with science (even the explode-y kind) outside the constraints of a lesson plan (and the inevitable standardized test question that follows upon that lesson plan) is precisely the kind of formative experience that gets kids interested enough in science to pursue that interest in their formal schooling. There's a challenge in finding the middle ground -- the circumstances where kids can get excited and take chances and discover things without doing permanent damage to themselves, others, or school property. In olden times, when I was in high school, some of our teachers managed to create conditions like these in the classroom. I don't even know if that would be possible anymore.

Meanwhile, we desperately need to figure out how not to read a 16-year-old's momentary lapse of judgment as a sign that she is a criminal, or a dangerous person to have in the classroom alongside other 16-year-olds whose lapses have not (yet) been so publicly observable. Smart kids -- good kids -- sometimes make decisions with less thought than they should about the potential consequences. Imposing draconian consequences on them isn't necessarily the only way to get them to be more mindful of consequences in the future.

My thoughts on this kind of case are made complex by very slight personal involvement with a similar case almost 20 years ago. In 1994, I lived near Gunn High School in Palo Alto, where a "senior prank" in the canter quad led to an explosion, a 15-foot plume of fire, and eighteen injured people, including two students seriously injured with second and third degree burns. The three seniors who confessed said they were trying to make a smoke bomb, but they had gotten it wrong. They all pled guilty to one felony count, were placed on probation, then had their felonies reduced to misdemeanors after they met particular conditions. They also faced a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of the injured students.

And, if memory serves, at least one of the students had his admission offer at an elite private college revoked.

I know this because I was teaching chemistry courses at a nearby community college that summer and the following fall, and one of the "mad bombers" (as they were being called in town) was my student. He was a good student, smart, engaged in the lessons, and hard working. In the laboratory, he took greater care than most of the other students to understand how to do the assigned experiments safely.

He wasn't, when I knew him, someone who seemed reckless with the welfare of the people around him. He definitely didn't seem like a kid looking to get into more trouble. He seemed affected by how wrong the prank had gone, and he gave the impression of having internalized some serious lessons from it.

None of this is to argue that he or the others shouldn't have been punished. They harmed their fellow students, some of them quite seriously, and the civil suits struck me as completely appropriate.

But approaching kids who mess up -- even quite badly -- as irredeemably bad kids (or, worse, as bad kids treated as adults for the purposes of prosecution) just doesn't fit with the actual kid I knew. And, possibly, going too far with the penalties imposed on kids who mess up is the kind of thing that might turn them into irredeemable cases, rather than giving them a chance to make things right, learn from their screw ups, and then go on to become grown-ups who make better decisions and positive contributions to our world.

4 responses so far

  • John says:

    My high school chemistry teacher was attempting to show what happens when Potassium comes in contact with water. He miscalculated and dropped in a pretty big chunk... and I ended up with burn holes in my jacket. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if some of my "experiments" are still burning in the sewer system under my high school.

    This girl needs to be encouraged to pursue her interest in science. The last thing we need to be doing right now is punishing her for being curious.

  • DJMH says:

    "Zero tolerance" always sounds to me like code for, "I have zero idea how to teach, guide, or discipline people."

    Basically the sort of admission that you wouldn't think teachers would want to make.

  • Tom McIver says:

    Compare with the 1940 movie Young Tom Edison, where Tom (played by Mickey Rooney) "almost demolished a train with a batch of homemade nitroglycerin" (http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article.html?isPreview=&id=353248%7C353375&name=Young-Tom-Edison). This is presented as the youthful curiosity of an inventive genius, and the film portrays the adults who try to stifle him as obstacles to be overcome in order for his genius to be fulfilled.

  • Bashir says:

    What really gets me is that they are going right for a felony charge. That's pretty much the worse thing you could have on your record as a citizen. A felony. There are so many other reactions to this that would both hold her responsible and not be unreasonable. Suspension? sure. Hours of community service? sure. Apparently the county in Florida is really into strong putative measures for minors. She's not the first one being charged as an adult for a minor offense.

    It does remind me of the Jena case in Mississippi where after a school fight with no serious injuries, the black students were charged with attempted murder and the white students with nothing.