By Kim Moore
On Monday, April 22, 2013, Kiera Wilmot went to school and mixed “The Works” toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a water bottle she brought from home. The outcome was a small “explosion” causing the top of the bottle to pop off which resulted in no damage and no injury to anyone.
According to the police report, an officer was called to the school and Kiera was arrested and taken off campus to a Juvenile Assessment Center. The arresting officer contacted the Assistant State Attorney, Tammy Glotfelty, who instructed him to charge Kiera with possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. Kiera has been expelled from school, will complete her diploma through an expulsion program and will ultimately be tried as an adult. But does the punishment fit the “crime”? And how does this incident fit into the criminalization of students and the push for STEM (science, technology engineering and math) studies?
We can’t solely look at Kiera’s failed science experiment as an isolated incident. What happened to Kiera calls into question a larger problem, that of the Zero Tolerance policies and school-based arrests that have been implemented in schools throughout the U.S. and have ultimately criminalized students, particularly students of color.
A report released by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles Civil Rights Project, in April shows the increasing gap between suspension rates of black and white students. According to the report, One million, or one in nine, middle school and high school students were suspended in 2009-2010, including 24 percent of black students and 7.1 percent of white students. The increased use of suspension in schools makes it increasingly difficult for students to receive a quality education and research has shown that being suspended even once in ninth grade is associated with a 32% risk for dropping out.
How can we expect students to go to school and learn when they are constantly at risk of being suspended or expelled for minor infractions?
Kiera’s situation also brings to mind the push for women in STEM. We have said time and time again, there’s an underrepresentation of African American female students in STEM fields some of which are due to exclusions, mis-opportunities and under-education within K-12. We are constantly encouraging and urging our young African American women and girls to explore these fields, and one has, and now she’s facing multiple felonies for it.
We cannot promote academic excellence and condemn the process by which that excellence can be achieved. After all, the purpose of going to school is to learn and making mistakes is a part of the learning process.