Teen Charged For School Science Project Gone Bad: Where’s the Justice In Zero-Tolerance?

This right here is why America’s public schools stay failing black children: A 16-year-old Florida student with a rep for being one of the smart, good girls in her classes was taken away from her high school in handcuffs and arrested and charged with a felony for conducting a science experiment that resulted in a small explosion.

By all accounts from her fellow students and the principal of Bartow High School, Keira Wilmot did not set out to create a bomb. She did not set out to hurt her fellow students or her teachers. She had no vendettas—no scores to settle. She just wanted to see what would happen if she mixed toilet cleaner with aluminum foil in an 8-ounce water bottle.

The result of her early morning science project? The mixture produced a small pop and a tiny billow of smoke. For her curiosity, Keira was kicked out of school and faces jail time.

Jail time.

To be fair, what Keira did is against her school’s code of conduct, which mandates expulsion for any kid in possession of a bomb or explosive device while at school, unless it’s being used in a supervised school-related activity or science project.

Still, Bartow High Principal Ronald Pritchard told Tampa Bay’s WTSP that Keira made a bad choice and acknowledged that the student didn’t mean to hurt anyone. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked too.”

Why, then, did the small pop and puff of smoke created by Keira’s early morning, unsupervised experiment warrant school and local authorities treating this child like she’s the Boston Bomber? Is there no room for nuance and understanding and an ounce of recognition for what really went on that day? Where, exactly, is the justice?

Here’s the problem with zero tolerance policies in our schools: they can lead to some pretty unfortunate overreactions from administrators that suck in kids who don’t deserve this torch-and-burn punishment. It’s understandable that a school system would have rules about such things and be sensitive about them, but every case has extenuating circumstances, and zero tolerance does not allow for particulars. That’s what leads to ridiculous reactions, like setting up a smart, curious 16-year-old child for a felony, expulsion, a GED from an alternative school, expensive legal fees and a possible record for having the nerve to be curious.

This, of course, is the way of public school systems, particularly when it comes to African American students in not-so-great public schools. I speak from experience when I say that all-too-many science teachers are much too content to hand out worksheets and encourage rote memorization of scientific theory rather than give the kids hands-on instruction that would make science fun. My youngest daughter had one science teacher who actually announced to her students that they wouldn’t be doing science projects in class because they’re “messy.” Another one of her science teachers practically required the class to memorize the science book for weekly tests, but the closest any of the students got to experimentation was volunteering to babysit the class rats for Christmas and Spring break.

In the meantime, my older daughter’s private school was dissecting lambs brains and cow hearts, using their Physics skills to build miniature bridges and examining under microscopes specimens they collected from the local creek, among many of the other hands-on exploration they did with the teachers there. So inspiring were the lessons that my Mari came home talking about how she was convinced she could be a surgeon because “cutting up stuff wasn’t so bad.”

“Actually,” she added, giggling, “it was fun.”

Not too long after that, she, her little sister, my two nephews and my step son all did the same exact experiment that got Keira kicked out of school and put in the pokey: they put a bunch of balled up pieces of aluminum foil in a juice jug, poured in some toilet cleaner, sat that bad boy on our brick mailbox and stood back and watched it explode. Nobody got hurt. But God, did they laugh and hoop and holler and talk about it for hours—what caused the reaction, whether other chemicals could do the same thing, how big the explosion could be if they used more materials. Soon, they were on YouTube and the internet, trying to find the answers. And then they were off to their next adventure: hunting bugs.

Public schools and their zero-tolerance policies are slaying this love of learning in our children—and I’m not the only one who feels this way. Biologist DN Lee penned the same sentiment in a brilliant post on ScientificAmerican.com. Witness:

Already, students like Keira are behind the curve in preparation for 21st Century jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). A system that values obedience over curiosity isn’t education and it definitely isn’t science. Her expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color: Don’t try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!

And the message to parents is that if you want your child to not get into any trouble, then tell them to sit still and behave. Most parents of Black and Brown kids already worry enough that their children risk arrest or harm for walking around in hoodies. Now the same antics that happen at the Maker Faire can get your kid handcuffed.

I can’t name a single scientist or engineer, who hadn’t blown up, ripped apart, disassembled something at home or otherwise cause a big ruckus at school all in the name of curiosity, myself included. Science is not a clean. It is very messy and it is riddled with mistakes and mishaps.

I wonder if she was experimenting in class because she wanted to actually do something in science class and not merely be lectured to and complete worksheets. I wonder if she was bored or just wanted to see for herself how x and y react to each other.

We don’t know. And we may not ever know. I do hope, though, that a solid organization, one that actually cares about science and its future and our need to up the ante on including children of color and underserved communities in solid STEM programming, seeks out Keira and provides for her what she clearly thirsts for: a solid chance at a sound education in science.

Change.org is hosting a petition asking school, district and police officials in Bartow to drop all charges against Keira Wilmont. Sign it here.


1. Disgusting Disrespect of Children in Meridian, Miss. Will Make You Want to Cry
2. The American Obsession with Imprisonment is a National Shame—and a Parent’s Nightmare
3. Police Officers in School? A Recipe for Student Failure
4. Summer Madness: Dangerous Stuff I’m Going To Let My Girls Do During Vacation

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Nick Chiles

Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.


  1. When I first heard this story, my heart sank, the public school system has failed this child in an unimaginable way. To kill her spirit of learning by locking her up is shameful to say the least. Making mistakes is a part of learning. Hopefully, she will take this as a stepping stone in life and not give up. I am praying she will be resilient.

  2. I am sure if she was the typical STEM student, Asian or a White Male she would have received applauds. But, since she is a black girl trying to achieve at something for what is currently the most demanded field in our country, she is belittled and set-up for jail time. WTF!!!!! Who would have thought getting involved in STEM would create such an issue for a young black girl. Truly sad.

  3. America is racing towards implementing a new agenda: Class-based apartheid. Since the most obvious and easy means of separating folks (skin color) is becoming frowned upon, this grand old institution is leaving no stone unturned to find ways to keep people of color down without being labeled racist. They have systematically torn down all of our public schools, demolished our Medicaid system, and removed sources of income (taxes) which kept many humanitarian and boot-strap programs going which allowed our black achievers a pathway to economic security. This is too much.

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