Community rallies around Bartow girl arrested after science experiment

05/07/13 Janelle Irwin
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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 Wilmot’s 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.

“If she were doing that at home … it would have gotten a stern warning from her mother and that would have been the end of it.”

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.

“That kind of context actually matters. It’s not what is done, but who’s doing it. Did she intend it? Was she trying to cause damage?”

According to news articles, even the school’s principal said he didn’t 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 attorney’s office in Bartow, charges have not been filed yet, but that doesn’t mean charges won’t be filed. Retired Pinellas County juvenile court judge Irene Sullivan said if reports are accurate, the girl may have some options.

“If she’s 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 … attempting to explode an incendiary device is a felony – those are appropriate charges, but they can also be diverted or she could be entered into a plan.”

Hillsborough County has a program championed by the county’s 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.

“Which keeps them from having an arrest record and then it also keeps them out of the JAC system – the juvenile assessment system – so that they don’t get caught up in the, what would be the beginning of the prison pipeline.”

But concerned activists are also concerned with the educational ramifications of Wilmot’s 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.

“It’s a reminder of what a large, unbending bureaucracy can do to its people including a curious, precocious child. It’s not good.”

The Polk school district wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Wilmot’s expulsion, but spokesperson Julie Togba issued this statement:

“Student discipline is handled in accordance with the school district’s 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 district’s administrative investigation is ongoing, but we are cooperating fully with law enforcement. The result of the criminal investigation may affect the district’s 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.”

The Polk County School’s disciplinary rules allow students to appeal their expulsion, but due to confidentiality issues, it’s 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.

Student arrested for science project gone bad: arrest report

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