Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The effects of unchecked criminalization: Teen charged with felony for science experiment


By Sesali Bowen | Published: May 1, 2013

When we talk about the criminalization of communities and people of color, especially African Americans and Latinos in America, we often talk about the criminal justice system in America that disproportionately targets those communities.Schools are often the major accomplices in making this system run with the school to prison pipeline. Nothing exemplifies this more than what is happening to 16 year old Kiera Wilmot in Florida. According to the Miami New Times,
 ”7 a.m. on Monday, the 16 year-old mixed some common household chemicals in a small 8 oz water bottle on the grounds of Bartow High School in Bartow, Florida. The reaction caused a small explosion that caused the top to pop up and produced some smoke. No one was hurt and no damage was caused.
…Wilmot told police that she was merely conducting a science experiment. Though her teachers knew nothing of the specific project, her principal seems to agree.
‘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.’
This sounds like a harmless instance of experimentation gone wrong. No harm, no foul right? Even the principle thinks it was simply a poor decision. A week of detention, maybe even suspension, was in order no doubt. So why did it go down like this?

“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.
She was then taken to a juvenile assessment center. She was also expelled from school and will be forced to complete her diploma through an expulsion program.”
The school released the following statement:
“Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules. We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions. We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff.”


I call bullshit. This is not about the “safety and security” of students and staff at Bartow High School. This was about setting an example, at the expense of Wilmot, and sending a message that even (mis)perceived threats will be dealt with swiftly and harshly. The unfortunate truth is that in America, those perceptions are heavily tied up in notions of race, class, and gender.

Those perceptions may have helped them come to the conclusion that Wilmot’s concoction was indeed a weapon. The code of conduct clearly states that “intention” is a factor in whether or not there has been a breach of that specific rule. But somehow the principal managed to defend the girls intentions but still expel and have her arrested.

Is the perceived threat to the safety of her classmates and teachers also the reason why Wilmot is being tried as an adult with a felony? A student with good grades and no behavioral problems to speak of should be followed with a felony because she was curious about a chemical reaction? She has been ushered into the criminal justice system with this decision. Access to employment, education, housing, etc. will all be limited to Wilmot with a felony on her record.

As a graduate of a Chicago Public School I am very familiar with teachers not being interested in nurturing the minds of students. Instead, they create a mindless generation that simply does what they’re told, no questions asked, all in the interest of maintaining an orderly “classroom”. Sending students to prisons is the solution for those who can’t be “controlled”. I have witnessed the policing that happens when school staff and administration fears its students, of color. Let me be clear, zero tolerance policies are not about keeping schools safe. They exist to keep school administrators from being held accountable for the environment they create in their institution and making contextual judgement calls.