The initial thought behind 'zero tolerance' policies in schools was  that children with consistent discipline issues would make up most suspensions.  However, ‘model students’ can also become entangled in mandatory school punishments.

On April 22, 2013, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was expelled from her South Florida high school for creating small ‘explosive’ by mixing household chemicals and a small wad of aluminum foil.  Further, Florida’s state attorney charged her with felonies equal to if she had discharged a firearm and a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ on school property.  Interestingly, Wilmot's principal Ron Pritchard was disturbed by the harshness of the school district's punishment.

Following national outrage at the severity of the consequences for what could be described as little more than poor judgment and bad timing on the part of a bright student with a healthy interest in science, the State Attorney's office announced yesterday that they were dropping the charges against Wilmot. Though details of the arraingement have yet to be released, the Orlando Sentinel says the teen likely agreed to community service and other conditional terms in order to avoid prosecution. Meanwhile, family attorney Larry Hardaway tells the newspaper that he will now focus on getting her back into her school. 

Wilmot’s experience has shined a light on the impact of school practices regarding discipline—and called attention to the need for greater access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) opportunities.  In an effort to show a strong stance on discipline issues, many schools have instituted zero-tolerance policies.  These rules have had a disproportionate impact on poor, special education and minority students.  Social scientists and civil rights organizations have coined the phrase ‘school-to-prison’ to highlight the impact of zero-tolerance policies on minority and underserved communities.

Pointing out these disparities in punishments can lead to better enforcement of discipline infractions at school while keeping students in the classroom.  A report by the University of California-Los Angeles Center for Civil Rights Remedies highlights the increased likelihood that Black students will be suspended.  Daniel J. Losen, director of the center and one of the study’s authors, tells, USA Today, "A lot of the time the public has a sense that we have to suspend these 'bad' kids—what else are we going to do?"

"But this study shows that within the same district, within the same demographics, there are schools that are doing things very differently."

Moreover, the study points out actions that parents, advocates, schools and governing bodies can take to correct disparities in suspensions. Otherwise, our country will continue to see high drop-out rates and the associated societal problems.

Many scientists are outraged by the severity of Wilmot's punishment and arrest, some showing solidarity by tweeting about things that they have blown-up and using the hashtags #Solidarity4Wilmot and #KieraWilmot.  Most scientists have expressed outrage that she has been dealt with so harshly and have implored the school administration and other school districts to turn the situation in a ‘teachable moment.’  Although, her science project could have caused injuries (chemical burns from the hydrochloric acid in the toilet cleaner had any made contact with skin), by all accounts Wilmot took care to conduct the experimental trial away from crowds. Her actions definitely called for an intervention and perhaps a punishment from the school administration; however proposing multiple criminal charges and filing them as an adult is considered an over-reach by all scientists I have discussed this matter with. 

We are also very concerned with how our children are taught STEM.  At age 16, Wilmot should have had enough science instruction to know that performing an unsupervised ‘science experiment’ can be dangerous to her and others.  Further, attempting or executing an unregulated experiment on campus runs the risk of disciplinary action.  On the surface following best practices will prevent most incidences of harm; however, this does not mean that students should not be allowed to make mistakes.  Helping students avoid disastrous choices is the best approach; however, we also have to insure that young people do not have their lives derailed over correctable missteps.

In Wilmot’s case, we are witnessing a student with an overall ‘A’ average exiting school, being redirected into an alternative program for at-risk students, and intitally facing jail time.  Many consider this to be a classic school-to-prison situation.  Rather than allowing the school principal to apply discretion based on Wilmot’s intent combined the result of her ‘science experiment,’ the school board executed an expulsion order.  To most this seems as an unreasonable way to punish a student for an unsanctioned ‘science project.’  Alternate punishments, would have included a suspension and community service that allowed Wilmot to speak to other students about operating outside of the controlled environment of science classroom or laboratory.  Additionally, she could have been required to volunteer with local scientists, who would also serve as science mentors to her, and she could have been taught to safely channel her enthusiasm for STEM.

Unfortunately, expulsion is unforgiving for students in the United States.  Unless, Wilmot can transfer to another school district or to a private school that is willing to allow her to remain in her projected graduating class, she is likely to fall behind. Had her story not made headlines, one wonders if she still would be facing incarceration. Jail time would suspend her high school experience, and likely result in her working to obtain a graduate equivalency degree (GED).  We would witness another young person that has demonstrated excellence in the classroom and outside of it become another case of ‘she could have been…’  How did we become a society that allows so many our young people to strike-out on the first missed swing?

Dr. Caleph B. Wilson is a biomedical sciences postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and co-chair of the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council.  In addition to his work as a scientist, he participates in outreach programs to promote STEM, through mentoring, science education and professional development advisements.  Follow him on Twitter: @HeyDrWilson