Education

We Need to Address the Profound Stupidity That Afflicts America

Crackdown on Florida high school science student is prime example of American idiocy.

Photo Credit: By Ebyabe (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

It's not as though a bunch of people in central Florida have been consciously conspiring about the best way to trash a 16-year-old girl's life, but the effect of their collective personal and institutional stupidity may well produce the same effect. At first there was no sign that any of them much cared, but now there's a ray of hope for a just outcome. Read on.

This cultural stupidity in Florida isn't an all-American sort of thing that could happen anywhere—and probably has in a variety of forms similar to the recent mindlessness that led school officials to call the police who called the prosecutor who decided, over the phone, to have a 16-year-old girl arrested as an adult and charged with two felonies under state law because she did an outdoors experiment that blew up an 8 oz. water bottle with the force of a small firecracker, doing no damage and harming no one.

This is the case of 11th grader Kiera Wilmot, a Bartow High School honor student with straight A's and a perfect behavior record, according to school officials. Sometime around 7 a.m. on Monday, April 22, she tried an experiment with a friend watching: she mixed hydrochloric acid (in a toilet bowl cleaner) with a bit of aluminum foil inside a plastic water bottle—a trick known familiarly as a "Drano bomb" or "works bomb." As predicted (and shown in video), shortly after Kiera Wilmot mixed the ingredients and put the cap on the bottle, hydrogen gas was produced, with enough pressure to pop the top off the bottle with the sound of a small firecracker.

Arguably, that was a stupid thing to do, at least on school grounds.

So the Question Quickly Arises, Are There Any Grown-Ups Here?

Then the adults got involved and took the stupidity to higher levels, quickly producing a stupidity tsumani of an all too familiar American kind.

The first adult on the scene is Dan Durham the assistant principal in charge of discipline at Bartow High. He hears the bottle pop outside the building before the school day starts. He goes to investigate. He finds Kiera Wilmot and she tells him the whole story.

She tells him it's an experiment she was doing in anticipation of the science fair. Apparently not believing her, perhaps fearing an international terror conspiracy, Durham calls the science teacher (who remains anonymous). The science teacher says that Kiera Wilmot's bottle pop has nothing to do with science class, so his skirts are clean. Of course what she does for science class is different from the science fair, but apparently no one figures that part out.

Continuing his enforcement, Dan Durham calls in the cops, which is easy enough since there's a "resource officer" on the premises.

At some point principal Ron Pritchard avoids involvement and allows the situation to continue to spin out of control. Faced with a bright young 16-year-old honor student with a perfect behavior record, who admits she just did an experiment that was louder than she'd expected, principal Pritchard doesn't act to put Kiera Wilmot's harmless behavior in perspective.

An Educator With a Passive-Aggressive Vicious Streak

Instead, with a kind of passive-aggressive viciousness, he ignores the best interests of a child under his care, he doesn't exercise leadership or good judgment, he stays out of the way. Maybe he thinks he's defending the institution, or himself, but whatever he was thinking, he lets law enforcement help make things worse.

And the principal knew all along what was real. Playing the kindly old duff on TV later, he said of Kiera Wilmot: "She just wanted to see what would happen and I think it shocked her that - because she was very honest with us when we were out there talking and I think, I think it kind of shocked her that it did that."

That was a few days later, when he knew full well how his own inaction had contributed to Kiera Wilmot getting arrested and charged as an adult with felony charges alleging she "discharged a weapon" and "discharged a destructive device."

Kiera Wilmot's weapon/device was an 8 oz. water bottle with toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum that hurt no one and destroyed nothing.

But principal Pritchard told a TV reporter: "She's a good kid and, you know, she made a bad choice and stuff and, uh - I don't think that - she was not trying to be malicious to harm anybody or destroy something at school or anything else."

In Florida educational circles, apparently, the offense of "a bad choice and stuff" is more than enough to put a child at risk of spending 5 years in jail and having a felony on her record for the rest of her life.

Why Would You Expect Public Servants to Exercise Any Discretion?

After school officials exercise no discretion, neither does the school's resource officer.

In his report, Bartow PD school resource officer Gregory Rhoden characterized the event as a "destructive device/weapons incident." Rhoden met first with assistant principal Durham, who was the official complainant. According to his report, Rhoden did not meet with the principal or anyone else other than Kiera Wilmot, whom he arrested, handcuffed, Mirandized, and questioned.

She told Rhoden the same story principal Pritchard said she told him, except that Rhoden reports there was a male friend who helped Kiera Wilmot do her bottle pop experiment. "At this time efforts are being made to identify Wilmot's friend," wrote Rhoden, a 1993 graduate of the same high school.

"I then contacted assistant state attorney Tammy Glotfelty via telephone. I advised a.s.a. Glotfelty of the circumstances of the case and she advised this officer to file charges of possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property F.S.S. 790.115(1) and making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device F.S.S. 790.161 (A)," Rhoden's report said.

It concluded, "I completed a cost affidavit and property receipt for the plastic bottle. The bottle was impounded as evidence."

Lodged As a Juvenile, Expelled by the School, At the Mercy of the Law

Kiera Wilmot was taken to the juvenile assessment center. She has remained there since April 22.

Bartow High School expelled her the same day, with no due process, saying there was no choice under the district's zero tolerance policy. At the end of that day, the school system seemed to be done with Kiera Wilmot - mission accomplished - unless she exercises her right to appeal to the school board.

Belatedly, the story emerged, apparently starting on April 24 with pretty straightforward coverage by TV station WTSP in Tampa. Posted online, the story drew almost unanimous sympathy for Kiera Wilmot, along with more general observations like "Florida incarcerates children at a rate higher than the national average. We need to stop the school-to-prison-pipeline" and "This country has become a malevolent joke" and "Where can we petition the stupidity of this paranoia?"

The answer to that question is two places: Change.org and ACLU.org.

Initial Reporting Is Shallow, Ducks Hard Questions

While WTSP reporter Melanie Michael blonde, was even-handed, her report was remarkably shallow. Although she had Principal Pritchard on camera, she didn't get him to answer questions about why he thought the school's response was appropriate, or why he thought the punishment wasn't disproportionate, or what responsibility a school has for preserving its students' futures.

The intensity of the coverage of this story Ð and increased focus on the apparent injustice to Kiera Wilmot Ð picked up with an April 26 blog post on WTF Florida, on the web page of the Miami New Times, summarizing the event with a tone of disbelief under the headline: "Florida Teen Girl Charged With Felony After Science Experiment Goes Bad."

That blog post also reported the unsigned, official statement in standard bureaucratese released by the Polk County School District, mostly if not all officials, presumably:

"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."

What Consequences Are There For Bad Bureaucrats' Decisions?

The school system bases its literally mindless response on its "zero tolerance" policy, which apparently includes zero tolerance for assessment, analysis, deliberation, or proportionality.

The school district statement echoes the irrelevant and completely false argument attributed to unnamed "local authorities" that: "In this day and age, in this climate, you cannot be too careful." That is the argument from panic that, in effect, says the longing for safety justifies a police state.

"Unfortunately, what she did falls into our code of conduct É It's grounds for immediate expulsion," said the district's Senior Director of Strategic Communications/Community Relations Leah Lauderdale.

The official response to Kiera Wilmot makes a mockery of the Polk County Public Schools web site's promotional video that slickly touts "rigorous, relevant learning experiences," the effort to "prepare every student to enter college," and that "graduation for all students is Goal #1."

Reaction around the internet has been building ever since, overwhelmingly in support of Kiera Wilmot.

On May 1 on MSNBC, Chris Hayes covered the story, talking to youth advocate Khary Lazarre-White, executive director of Bro/Sis. In his view, the Florida case reflects a wider American failure: "Really what it is, this is about adults who are refusing to do their responsibility—this is about parents, teachers, and school districts - and that needs to be the response, not law enforcement, because it really is a question about kind of an America do we want to see."

Florida May Be Worst Case, But the Problem Is National

Arguing that too many schools have stopped responding to children's needs in a child-centered way, Lazarre-White said:

"It's emblematic of a national issue. Over three million cases of expulsion and severe suspensions across the country, and it's a zero tolerance policy that is expelling children for the kinds of things that got us sent to the principal's office or talked to by a teacher Ð at worst Ð when we were in school."

On May 5, two days after Baton Rouge, Louisiana, TV station WAFB ran a summary of Kiera Wilmot's story, the station's online poll had 90% of respondents supporting her and calling her punishment too harsh.

Through all of this, the Wilmot family has stayed out of the public eye. Kiera's twin sister still goes to the same school, but she didn't join her friends who went on TV to talk about her. Their mother is a single, working mom. For all the support they've been getting from afar, locally they've had no openly public defenders.

But Kiera Wilmot does have an attorney, Larry Hardaway of Hardaway & Associates in Lakeland, Florida. In an interview May 3 with Business Insider, he sounded like the first sane adult involved in the case.

Kiera Wilmot's Attorney Hopes to Prevent Further Harm

Hardaway reports that he has gotten the school board to stay its expulsion proceedings "until we can work out a resolution."

He says that he is negotiating with the state attorney's office, which has not yet decided whether to charge her as an adult or a juvenile, or whether to charge her at all - "We will have further negotiations next week about how to move forward without harming her."

Hardaway speaks highly of Assistant State Attorney Tammy Glotfelty, calling her "a very fine prosecutorÉ. There are prosecutors that are sometimes hardened, and aren't as sensitive as they should be, but that wouldn't be Tammy Glotfelty."

In a recent juvenile case that Glotfelty considered for about a month, she ended up deciding not to prosecute a 13-year-old boy for killing his brother when they were shooting at each other with BB guns. Some have criticized Glotfelty for calling that case, two boys, a "tragic accident," but seeming to fail to approach Kiera Wilmot with the same degree of sensitivity.

Making a recommendation over the phone, based only on third party information, may strike some as less than careful, but if the prosecutors decided not to file any charges, as Hardaway is advocating, that would at least limit the damage to Kiera Wilmot.

In a Just Country, Wouldn't Someone Try to Make Kiera Wilmot Whole?

She'll still have personal and family trauma to deal with, and a financial burden, and likely social consequences if some unpleasant sort. Maybe she can go back to school and graduate (Goal #1!) and even go to college and have a decent life in spite of it all.

And Bartow High School will have achieved its goal of giving her a "rigorous, relevant learning experience" of an unusual, unfortunate, and sadly useful nature for navigating contemporary America. She will have an object lesson that those entrusted with your care won't always care for you, those entrusted with your protection won't always protect you, and those entrusted with guarding your rights won't always guard you.

It's not a pretty picture of an insecure homeland, where it's hard to find people in authority who can be trusted - but it is real.

And it wasn't a science project gone bad. It was an experiment that worked. As predicted.

Will Prosecutors' Reasonableness Be Shared by Education "Professionals?"

Update: On May 15, the prosecutors announced that Kiera Wilmot would not face further charges if she successfully completes a Diversion Program agreement. The prosecutors office statement read, in its entirety:

Based upon the facts and circumstances of the case, the lack of criminal history of the child involved, and the action taken by the Polk County School Board, the State Attorney's Office extended an offer of diversion of prosecution to the child. The child and her guardian signed the agreement to successfully complete the Department of Juvenile Justice Diversion Program.

The pending case has been dismissed. No formal charges will be filed.

Attorney Hardaway told reporters the same day that he and Kiera Wilmot and her mother are continuing to discuss the situation with the Polk County School Board. After principal Pritchard recommended that the "good kid" be expelled, that recommendation was put on hold, awaiting action by the prosecutors.

The next formal step is for the expulsion appeal to be heard by a school board hearing officer.

Kiera Wilmot has now served a ten-day suspension and is completing 11th grade at an alternative school. Hardaway said his client is eager to clear her name because she's worried that people at her school think she's a "terrorist."

By their own comments, school officials have always known Kiera Wilmot was never anything like a terrorist. And now they have an opportunity to deliver a powerful, positive message by admitting they overreacted and expunging the whole episode from the record.

In education jargon, it's called a teachable moment. In life it's called fair.

And if school officials are looking for a role model, they can study the response of a former NASA engineer, Homer Hickam, to Kiera Wilmot's situation. Hickam, whose personal story was portrayed in the movie "October Sky," has given Kiera Wilmot a scholarship to the summer program at the United States Advanced Space Academy, part of the Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and he's raising money for a scholarship for her sister as well.

As a teenager in West Virginia, Hickam conducted unauthorized experiments with rockets at his high school, which also led to police taking him away in handcuffs.

William M. Boardman has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.