Community rallies around Bartow girl arrested after science experiment
More than 150,000 people have signed a petition asking district attorneys in Bartow not to file charges against a teenager charged with setting off a bomb at her school. It sounds bad, but critics of 16-year-old Kiera Wilmotâs arrest last month say the explosion was only the result of a science experiment gone wrong.
Tammi Coles created a Facebook page to raise support for Wilmot.
âIf she were doing that at home â¦ it would have gotten a stern warning from her mother and that would have been the end of it.â
The Bartow teenager mixed toilet bowl cleaner with pieces of aluminum foil together in a plastic bottle before school on April 22. The result was a lot of smoke and a big boom. Coles used to work for an organization that rallied against zero tolerance policies and now lives in Germany. She argues that Wilmot was only acting on curiosity after a friend told her to mix household chemicals in a bottle to see what happened.
âThat kind of context actually matters. Itâs not what is done, but whoâs doing it. Did she intend it? Was she trying to cause damage?â
According to news articles, even the schoolâs principal said he didnât think Wilmot meant any harm. And no one was hurt. But still Wilmot was expelled from school and faces a felony charge for her experiment. A spokesperson for the Bartow Police Department declined to comment on the arrest. According to the state attorneyâs office in Bartow, charges have not been filed yet, but that doesnât mean charges wonât be filed. Retired Pinellas County juvenile court judge Irene Sullivan said if reports are accurate, the girl may have some options.
âIf sheâs 16 years old and has no prior record and the school teachers and administration thinks she was a good students and obeyed the rules and this was just a very foolish and dangerous prank and she has the support of family - than this case, even though it merits felony charges which would be carrying a weapon to school â¦ attempting to explode an incendiary device is a felony â those are appropriate charges, but they can also be diverted or she could be entered into a plan.â
Hillsborough County has a program championed by the countyâs Juvenile Justice Task Force that lets students avoid criminal charges. Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin said the diversionary tactic helps avoid the so-called school to prison pipeline.
âWhich keeps them from having an arrest record and then it also keeps them out of the JAC system â the juvenile assessment system â so that they donât get caught up in the, what would be the beginning of the prison pipeline.â
But concerned activists are also concerned with the educational ramifications of Wilmotâs situation. Because she was suspended, Wilmot will have to finish high school in a special program for students who were kicked out of school. Democratic activist Bill Bucolo reached out to people he knew through social media sites to try to do something about it.
âItâs a reminder of what a large, unbending bureaucracy can do to its people including a curious, precocious child. Itâs not good.â
The Polk school district wouldnât comment on the specifics of Wilmotâs expulsion, but spokesperson Julie Togba issued this statement:
âStudent discipline is handled in accordance with the school districtâs code of student conduct. All students facing disciplinary action have a right to due process under Florida law in the code. It is our understanding that the student is represented by legal council. The districtâs administrative investigation is ongoing, but we are cooperating fully with law enforcement. The result of the criminal investigation may affect the districtâs disciplinary recommendation. Under state and federal law, students have significant privacy rights. Accordingly, the district will not be able to provide information about a particular student.â
The Polk County Schoolâs disciplinary rules allow students to appeal their expulsion, but due to confidentiality issues, itâs not known whether or not the Wilmot family has filed one. The family did respond to an interview request.
In a previous version of this story it was incorrectly reported that Julie Togba created a Facebook page raising support for Kiera Wilmot. Togba is a spokesperson for the Polk County School district and has no affiliation with the Facebook page or other advocacy groups. The person who created the support page is Julie Coles.
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