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Florida teen charged with felony for trying science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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News of Kiera Wilmot’s arrest has seriously unnerved me. She is the Florida high school student who was experimenting with common household chemicals in science class that resulted in a minor explosion. There were no injuries and no damage to school property; however, she was taken away in handcuffs, formally arrested and expelled from school.

I acknowledge that too little information has been provided on the case. (UPDATE: Here is the link to the Incident Report filed by the Compliance Officer at her school.) We have NO idea what was happening in the class. Where was the teacher? Were students involved in a laboratory activity at the time? (UPDATE: We now know she was not in class, but was on school grounds before the morning bell rang.) I have spent time in the high school classroom. I know the shenanigans (and havoc) these pre-adults can cause. It is no laughing matter. Even if this were a prank, say something akin to my generation’s idea of setting off smoke bombs in the hall during the passing of classes, my gut reaction stands. (UPDATE: It seems it was NOT aprank. It was a curious kid trying something she saw on the Internet, the toilet cleaner and aluminum project. It still counts as science and as an experiment in my book.)

I don’t like what our public education (and justice) systems do to urban youth (e.g. the discipline gap with  Black kids). I worry about urban kids who don’t (tend) to have access to social capital that advocates for them and gives them a chance after stupid mistakes. I worry what this will mean to her family financially. What will it mean for her future? Will graduating from an alternative school prevent her from attending college? Will she be marked as a trouble maker? Will she have a criminal record that prevents her from gainful employment and a meaningful life? More immediately, will she get locked away for 20 years? Shit like that happens to kids who look like her.

from Miami New Times

(Yea, I cussed. That’s how livid I am.) I’ve heard of so many equally stupid and perhaps more dangerous things done by white suburban kids and nothing close to this happens to them.

The School Board had this to say about this situation.

“Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules. We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions. We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff.”

This is a VERY BAD message to kids, especially urban students of color.
I’m reading between the lines.
A serious breach of conduct – students not sitting still in seats, faces front and being quiet.
Consequences to actions – kicked out of school, criminalized and tried as an adult for not sitting still, being quiet.

Our nation’s science education is already on shaky ground. Everyday kids are being bored to tears in the average science class. And in far too many urban high school science classes, curiosity, hands-on learning, and authentic experimentation rarely exist. The Pedagogy of Poverty that shapes the learning environment of many African-American, Latino and working class white students in our nation values classroom behavior & discipline over curiosity and exploration.

Many school districts have established Rules of Conduct and Zero Tolerance ordinates that penalize students who question a teacher’s authority on a subject (insubordination) or who require alternative learning approaches (behavior issues). Or worst, the concern over possible safety and security issues have resulted in shuttered science laboratories. I’ve witnessed beautifully remodeled lab classrooms with supplies, computers, and equipment – all locked away, never to be touched by most students.>
Why? Some teachers and administrators worry about damage and wear and tear or shenanigans. But the same administrators will brag about their facilities and take visiting dignitaries to tour their fancy facilities? What’s the point?! The kids aren’t getting a chance to experiment and learn. Such a system rewards students with meaningful learning opportunities only if they act right first. Relevant engaging lessons quash most behavior issues, not the other way around!

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.

Science is fun! I spend months traveling around the world studying wild animals in Africa. I have friends who do chemistry and solve crimes and who live on sea vessels for weeks studying plastic trash islands in the ocean. But the average high school student would have no idea of how exciting science could be because we’ve taken the action out of science.

We need to create ‘safe’ environments for children of color, especially Black children to study and pursue STEM. If what happened to Kiera is an example, then formal learning environments do not entrust students to explore science. There is a legitimate fear of extreme consequences; and losing another brilliant mind to the justice system is too great a cost to our community. That era s we need to create resourced and mentored places outside of the classroom for science exploration. Cultivating relationships between scientists and engineers and teachers and students is the key to creating this safe environment. By fostering multi-generational relationships a,omg STEM professionals, students, parents, teachers, and adult influencers we stand a chance at addressing both the justice and STEM education disparities in our community.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Quantumburrito 3:10 pm 05/1/2013

    Yes, it’s very troubling. I forget where I read it but the other day there was an article which pointed out how school kids are increasingly being arrested for things which forty years ago would have at best been treated as pranks or misbehavior resulting in detention.

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  2. 2. SeaGypsy 3:17 pm 05/1/2013

    Looks like we’re living in an increasingly police-ish state…a result of all the fear-mongering and greed in politics. Sad, sick, and just all around anger-inducing…

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  3. 3. chuckg79 3:18 pm 05/1/2013

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  4. 4. kalimi 3:21 pm 05/1/2013

    i agree. i did something equally “stupid” in a science class (in the 60′s) and got punished with detention.
    are you in a position to actually help this girl? far better than just pointing out how unfair it is.

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  5. 5. RoseEveleth 3:25 pm 05/1/2013

    So, I never comment on stories, but I’m going to here.

    This student was not arrested for “experimenting with common household chemicals in science class that resulted in a minor explosion.” She was not in science class. Her teachers did not know anything about the “experiment” she was conducting.

    From the original blog that you link to: “On 7 a.m. on Monday, the 16 year-old mixed some common household chemicals in a small 8 oz water bottle on the grounds of Bartow High School in Bartow, Florida.” Note that they specifically say “on the grounds” not “in class.” Also note this section “Wilmot told police that she was merely conducting a science experiment. Though her teachers knew nothing of the specific project, her principal seems to agree.”

    So, she told police after the fact that she was doing a science experiment. She was not in science class. Her science teachers didn’t know about her experiment.

    Now, should the girl be hauled off in handcuffs and arrested. No, clearly that’s an insane overreaction. However, to say that she was arrested for doing a science experiment in science class is simply not accurate. Before we all freak out

    Disclaimer that I feel like I need to make: yes, women and minorities are systematically discouraged from STEM. Yes, that should change. Yes, we should fight things that cause women and minorities from pursuing STEM careers. I’m just not convinced that this is actually what’s happened here. I could be totally wrong, but I think a closer reading of the original blog, and a little bit of time for more information to come out, will serve us all well before we all freak out.

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  6. 6. RoseEveleth 3:36 pm 05/1/2013

    Well, proofreading would have served that comment of mine well. Sadly there’s no edit button on comments. Pretend that hanging “Before we all freak out” 1/2 sentence isn’t there. Also pretend that later I say “Yes, we should fight things that stop women and minorities from pursuing STEM careers” rather than “cause.” And this is why I never comment.

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  7. 7. Rocza 3:46 pm 05/1/2013

    In this instance, it does sound like she was doing What She Should Not Be on school grounds – and it’s hard to “blame” administrators for over-reacting these days, because, well, if they didn’t and then a student did MakeBombGoBoom, there’d be so many legal consequences.

    Now THAT SAID – I can’t help but compare how my situation to hers, simply because when I was around her age, I got in the habit of wandering through the science lab chemical racks (which were just hanging out in the back of the science lab) going “what happens if,…” and mixing things up. The first two times, just minor poofs of smoke and stink, and I got a lecture. The third time? Woops. Fire and evacuating the entire building.

    Did I get expelled? Well, no – but also kind of. There was a parent/teacher conference, and the teachers flat-out told my parents that they didn’t have the resources to engage me at the high school, and I needed to be working at a more advanced level (in part due to my education before then). They then worked with my parents to figure out the best way to get me out of high school without penalty. (So, essentially I graduated at 16 and wandered off to community college, etc.) Keeping me at the school was clearly presented as NOT AN OPTION – but the school worked to find one that wouldn’t penalize my curiousity.

    In this case, I can understand the need to intervene. It’s the intervention itself that is too drastic, and will have too severe an impact on this curious mind. Her “what if” should be nurtured, not squashed. Clearly it’s possible to do that, and it’s troubling to think that the major difference between Wilmot’s case and my own is that I was a white teenager in the Bay Area during the early 90s (a place that was teeming with “creative and bright”).

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  8. 8. Not 'Tarded 3:48 pm 05/1/2013

    I agree with Rose – and proof-reading the article itself would have been smart too. Expulling?

    That said, have you seen the crap kids get up to these days? I understand why cops are in the schools now. Perhaps if parents took the time to teach their kids how to behave properly, we wouldn’t need a “police-state”.

    Simple fact is that if kids behave, they have nothing to fear. But many do not behave. They break laws all the time.

    This girl could have caused serious harm with her unsupervised “experiment” – I do not think the authorities are over-reacting. Hopefully she will learn that there is a time and place for these sorts of actions and this will make her a stronger, more responsible adult.

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  9. 9. Moulton 3:57 pm 05/1/2013

    According to the story, Polk County School released the following statement:

    “Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules. We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions. We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff.”

    My view is that the school also has made a bad choice here, regarding their response to a breach of expectations vis-a-vis the student code of conduct.

    There is also a (tacit) adult code of conduct that, to my mind, the school authorities have also breached here.

    In the wake of a breach of expectations, there arises a process that cultural anthropologist, Victor Turner, calls a “liminal social drama.”

    This episode will predictably initiate an instance of liminal social drama, thereby demonstrating the theory of social drama and “communitas” as first enunciated by Victor Turner.

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  10. 10. Azuaron 3:58 pm 05/1/2013

    According to the police report (linked to on the update for the blog), she was mixing toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil:

    That right there is a bomb. Not only is that a bomb, but I find it difficult to believe that she was “doing a science experiment” and “didn’t know what would happen”; with such a specific and reactive combination of chemicals, I’m fairly confident she saw it on YouTube and decided to do it at school.

    Should she be expelled and arrested? Maybe. That’s a bomb on school property; there’s no other way to put it. You can’t set off firecrackers on school grounds, either, and they’re less dangerous than this. Felony charges are excessive, but I could get behind a few hundred hours community service and expulsion.

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  11. 11. drafter 4:08 pm 05/1/2013

    Are we running a police state yes. Look at a school compared to a prison they look identical. My big complaint about this article is your assumption
    “Shit like that happens to kids who look like her.”
    I live in a white community and believe me you can be of any color these days and they will arrest you for the most minor of infractions, harmless pranks that people did in the 60′s and 70′s.

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  12. 12. quantumdani 4:11 pm 05/1/2013

    I think the question we should be asking ourselves is: even if she was on the school yard with no adult supervision, should she be labeled as a felon, forced to drop out of the usual high school graduation pipeline and therefore suffer from legalized discrimination all of her life just because she potentially showed poor judgement about when and where to indulge her curiosity? People do realize that once you are a felon, you can’t vote in several states (including Florida if I recall correctly), you can’t teach public school in many places, and colleges and potential employers can legally discriminate against you based on your criminal record? This is a very, very serious situation that goes way beyond whether she showed poor judgment. We should be more worried about the poor judgement of the people prosecuting her than the details of whether she showed poor judgement, whether her teacher was paying attention, etc. Only in the scenario where she intended to cause someone harm should the consequences be so great, and not even the Principal believes that she had those intentions.

    The fact that they went on to expel her and charge her with a felony is inextricably tied with the systemic problems that African Americans experience when they come into contact with the American “justice” system. Study after study shows that whites are charged with lesser crimes when they commit the same acts as African Americans, for example. It is not unreasonable to link her race to how she is being treated and ask the question of whether there is a relationship. In fact, someone who is a good scientist, someone with a genuinely open mind, is someone who will not be afraid to ask that question.

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  13. 13. flabiotechnews 4:18 pm 05/1/2013

    This young woman is on the receiving end of police & school over reaction. She is facing adult charges that will make it difficult to get into college or find a job. I think an over reaction in support of scientific inquiry would be a good thing…

    BTW, Florida has the nation’s largest “school to prison pipeline” and it is doing nothing but ruining lives.–and_that_was_an_improvement.html

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  14. 14. Gatnos 4:26 pm 05/1/2013

    Why in the world is this article focusing on race rather than the knee-jerk overreaction of the leftist politically correct school authorities?

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  15. 15. dirk.valk 4:31 pm 05/1/2013

    I live about 10 miles from where this took place. Our district isn’t known for being excessively progressive, but we’re not particularly repressive, either. The student was not in class, performed the alleged experiment outside, was not under supervision at the time, and was not knowingly engaged in any school-related project. The location, I should note, is about 2 miles from both the county seat and courthouse, and the school board offices – which might make folks a little more reactive to events. The reaction of the School Board is pretty dramatic (speaking from the standpoint of someone who knows several of them), not to mention extremely swift in specying punishment.

    This is, at this stage, purely hypothetical, but I would point out that the description of the “experiment” matches what is commonly called a “Works Bomb”. If that is the case, then the argument of “doing science” is completely invalid – this is a pretty well-known “experiment” that has been performed several times in the county, although never on school grounds. If it was this kind of device, the idea that she did not know what to expect is pretty unlikely, and she is lucky to have escaped injury. This would also explain the unusually swift and harsh move by the School Board.

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  16. 16. jackmott 4:34 pm 05/1/2013

    It would be excellent if SA could help establish, or point us towards any petitions or legal defense funds for this woman. The reaction by the school, and the police are both completely unacceptable. Science, curiosity, and excellence are under attack here by people who live in ignorance and fear of everything.

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  17. 17. Sinned43 4:55 pm 05/1/2013

    Why is it that color enters the picture when someone is found to have broken laws or rules? Blacks have to stop this color nonsense and see the event as it happened without putting color into the picture. Seems that the student made a mistake and the necessary action was taken. End of story.

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  18. 18. stanleywinford 5:00 pm 05/1/2013

    I’m an undergrad astrophysics student and aspiring scientist. When I was 13 or so, I did chemical experiments to isolate various elements and observe interesting reactions. In hindsight, these were often dangerous (to myself only) and ill-advised, but they gave me the motivation and curiosity needed to pull through high school and pursue a career in science. I will never regret not being a normal kid, or having a spirit of exploration, or wanting to try things for myself to see what happens.
    There’s a risk to curiosity, just as there’s a risk to exploration, sports, diving, and many other activities that people take joy in. In this case, I highly doubt the girl meant to hurt anyone, as the police report seems to imply she was alone when the explosion occurred. If she was making a weapon, the weapon had little chance of hurting anyone except herself. This incident should definitely be a learning lesson in lab safety, but criminalizing curiosity is a sure way of limiting the next generation’s interest in science and reducing the country’s pool of technical talent.

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  19. 19. dirk.valk 5:03 pm 05/1/2013

    The author is completely out of order in jumping to judgement. I write this at 5pm LT on the day of the incident, and answers to all of her suppositions are already in the public news. The blog post, and following comments, are a study in knee-jerk Internet conclusion-jumping. Whether the student committed an offense worthy of punishment is still unclear. The implications of the post are already invalidated.

    As to the young woman’s color, I can think of many more Caucasian students than minorities who have suffered similar penalties for actions which (on the day of occurrence) would have been reported with this language. Since I am personally extremely familiar with the demographics of our county science fair, our AP population, and our district leaders, I can assure you that this is not a racially-influenced decision.

    The school campus is home to a highly diverse public High School, a magnet school for military service, and an IB – not a “face-front and keep your mouth shut” educational institution, thank you very much.

    And whatever their faults, our SB is extremely sensitive to diversity issues.

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  20. 20. M Tucker 5:05 pm 05/1/2013

    Yes! Yes! The arrest and criminal charges are a completely insane overreaction. I think it is barbaric. My heart goes out to this young girl. I pray she is released to her parents and the school or school board reconsiders pressing charges.

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  21. 21. Bora Zivkovic 5:10 pm 05/1/2013

    Note: as you know DNLee is in Tanzania, with barely functioning internet access. Publishing this was hard enough, but you will have to wait for her to come later and try to fix typos, respond to comments, and add updates once she can actually access the news that appeared since this was posted. Be patient.

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  22. 22. dirk.valk 6:03 pm 05/1/2013

    @Bora – if she is in Tanzania (something not shown in the blog post), then she has no business whatsoever in commenting on this incident within hours of its occurrence. Simple scientific prudence demands that if you are unlikely to have a reasonable amount of facts before you, you should refrain from comment – especially long, diatribal comment making dramatic claims about STEM teaching and racial prejudice. This is not informed commentary, it is showboating. Ms. Lee seems more interested in publicity than valid commentary.

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  23. 23. OzyKat 6:07 pm 05/1/2013


    (Imprison the over-reacting school officials instead… for gross stupidity. Oh, right, that’s not a crime. Too bad.)

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  24. 24. marclevesque 6:17 pm 05/1/2013

    From the web site Howtodothings

    “There are a lot of science experiments that are popular. Some of them are the exploding volcano and the Mentos and Coca-cola mixture. There is another experiment that you can do at home. This is called the toilet bowl cleaner bomb.”

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  25. 25. leaf6 7:00 pm 05/1/2013

    I shall now propose something equally or more ridiculous. Why not ban aluminum foul and toilet bowl cleaners, or at least require a license or some kind of restriction to own these dangerous products simultaneously. (I’m joking of course.)

    I shall now invoke an overbeaten saying: curiosity killed the cat.

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  26. 26. ejwillingham 7:20 pm 05/1/2013

    @Dirk.Valk Perhaps you can get a blog platform of your own and then write to whatever dictates you choose. As it is, Dr. Lee can obviously write freely about what she finds to be in her wheelhouse and of interest to her, which she has done here. Had you bothered to review her posts or anything about her, you’d know (1) the fact that she’s in Tanzania and why that is and (2) that she has a long track record of writing about the issues she addresses here, not out of an “interest in publicity” (speaking of lacking “simple scientific prudence” on your part) but out of a deep and abiding interest in the participation of underserved communities in STEM. Being in Tanzania isn’t relevant to whether or not she should write about this story; it’s relevant in terms of her ability to address comments or correct typos … the latter of which serve some commenters here simply as a distraction and a way not to address the many discussion-worthy observations she made in this post.

    Taking a 16-year-old girl with no history of behavioral issues, who’s characterized as a good student, and then Mirandizing her, charging her with felonies, as an adult, and questioning her without her parents present are all extreme overreactions on the part of those in authority in this situation, and I hope that when they’ve cooled off, they’ll have the sense to see that. Even at its most negative interpretation, nothing in this story supports derailing a teenaged girl’s life in this way.

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  27. 27. packman90 7:29 pm 05/1/2013

    A few friends and I did something like this while we were still in high school in Florida. We did not do it on school grounds, but still got into big trouble with the police. None of us were arrested (all were Caucasian). We were just curious and thought it would be interesting to try. All of the charges ended up being dropped against us.

    We all went on to graduate from college and now I’m pursuing a PhD in science. I’m not defending her actions or anything and I don’t think it’s a good idea, but to charge her with a felony and arrest her seems like an overreaction. This type of activity is simply represents misplaced curiosity and a lack of judgement. As long as no one got hurt, I think explaining to her why it’s wrong and scaring her a little should help make her future experiments more productive.

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  28. 28. tarasue 7:50 pm 05/1/2013

    “As to the young woman’s color, I can think of many more Caucasian students than minorities who have suffered similar penalties for actions which (on the day of occurrence) would have been reported with this language.”

    Many more students, but what about the percentages? As a former teacher and a journalist who has extensively studied the school-to-prison pipeline and the ways in which subtle racial bias can infect schools and decisions in ways that people may not even consciously realize, I find it hard to believe that anyone can unequivocally determine that race is a non-issue here. A decision to charge a 16-year-old girl with no criminal history with a felony for creating what has clearly been labeled as an experiment on many online sites can involve race without being explicitly “racially-influenced.”

    Being diverse does not immunize a school district against racial influences, and a scientist and blogger who is very familiar with the history of poor representation of minorities in STEM has every right to comment on the case.

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  29. 29. Mythusmage 9:09 pm 05/1/2013

    Some people have a talent for ignoring the vicissitudes of life.

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  30. 30. QuipsTravails 9:28 pm 05/1/2013

    I was a liberal arts major. At my college, they had to evacuate the library after exactly this “experiment” – we were etching “gobos” (light templates) with HCL. We were, at least, working with a professor (there were other instances where the theatre dept. caused problems the professors didn’t know about.)

    Nobody went away in handcuffs. We were given a harsh talking-to and told that we had to use the hoods in the chemistry lab in the future.

    When I was in high school, for fun we used to turn all the shade pulls into hangman’s nooses – it never occurred to us that we were being anything other than annoying, which was our goal.

    This girl did a dumbass thing, whatever the real reason, and needed a talking-to. Thank goodness she didn’t hurt herself! The school should probably then have gone over its safety policies and procedures with all the students.

    I cannot fathom how this turned into felony charges.

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  31. 31. squidboy6 11:02 pm 05/1/2013

    I loved high school chemistry partly because we got to blow up things!

    My teacher had been a missionary nun in Africa and she knew how to to handle teenagers, and getting them interested in chemistry was partly accomplished by showing us how to do it.

    My favorite method was calcium carbide. Just add water.

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  32. 32. elderlybloke 12:26 am 05/2/2013

    The tutor in a Physics Course I did around 50 years ago gave a demonstation of how finely ground substances could give an impressive display when a small amount was introduced to a container with a candle burning in it.

    Most things when in very fine particles will ignite easily.
    I remember the bang very clearly.
    He would be arrested today if he did that in the neurotic country called America.

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  33. 33. patrickryansully 2:22 am 05/2/2013

    Oh my God, you people defending Kiera are so naive! And when race got brought in, that was just from another level of conjecture to another problem on another subject. I’m surprised your even intelligent enough to read Scientific American.

    She blew up a Drano Bomb, we used to make them in 7th and 8th grade. Its awesome, its fun, its easy, and its dangerous. Its powerful enough to blow up a mailbox, and the toilet bowl cleaner stains everything permanently, asphalt in my experience. Also, if any of that stuff gets in your eyes, you have a big problem. Skin isn’t too bad, depending on the brand. Its why when dumping it down a clogged sink, you are never supposed to look down, and are advised to wear goggles.

    If it was off school grounds, or didn’t damage anything, if I where a cop, I would let her just go. On school grounds, she should be suspended or expelled, and maybe a small misdemeanor. If she blew up a locker or something then maybe a good ole felony is the way to go. Yes, you could probably blow a locker door off with a well crafted Drano-bomb. Try it in a safe field with precaution, if you don’t believe me. And….oh, they are fun.

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  34. 34. patrickryansully 2:32 am 05/2/2013

    Sorry if I left out perfect grammar, as I was so annoyed by the above ridiculous comments. “were” One more thing, that stuff can damage your skin and scar bad if you use the wrong stuff. One drain cleaner I used, had sulfuric acid and lye. I think most do, but I used the really strong stuff for plumbers at serious professionals. That would be a lot worse than the normal Home Depot stuff. But the reaction would be faster, and the possible side effects would be worse from getting it on you.

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  35. 35. deathpyre42 2:40 am 05/2/2013

    @ patrick. Tm 21-310, ‘nough said.

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  36. 36. Bremsstrahlung 5:22 am 05/2/2013

    It was unwise of the author to jump to conclusions based on insufficient and inaccurate data.

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  37. 37. Chryses 6:50 am 05/2/2013

    Why is a picture of a classroom presented when the explosive device was set off outside the school before the classes began that day?

    Why is the “in science class” claim made when the explosion was not part of the student’s science class?

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  38. 38. justin ou 8:07 am 05/2/2013

    Personally speaking, the reaction of the Justice department and the school was extreme, unbelievable. Even though the student was breaking the rules of conduct, it sounded perfectly normal that it happened everyday and to every students.
    Adolescent is a time when doing something stupid and ridiculous is thought of as inevitable. It’s the lesson that we learn from it that matters. It help us to grow more mature and become more sophisticated, it’s beneficial for our entering into adulthood. Therefore, I think the punishment was too heavy and unreasonable. The student made the mistake should be given the opportunity to redeem her wrongdoing, whether in the forms of serving public service or sharing her experience to other students, rather than being handcuffed and leaving with a criminal record.

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  39. 39. JtSamson 10:02 am 05/2/2013

    Just yesterday I attended a talk by one of the most senior aeronautical engineers at Lockheed Martin. He was asked about his biggest concerns. His greatest challenge is hiring–he can’t find enough engineers. His second greatest concern is what he sees as the rapid decline in Americans’ appetite for risk. He is convinced that these two factors are going to topple us from our current position as leader of the world in science and engineering. This poor girl is more evidence–we are systematically destroying our own future as a nation with antics such as this.

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  40. 40. JtSamson 10:06 am 05/2/2013

    Meaning, antics such as what those ridiculous people in Florida performed against a future engineer or scientist. If twenty years ago students had been prosecuted in the manner that Kiera was, we wouldn’t have any engineers or scientists today.

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  41. 41. ideonexus 1:09 pm 05/2/2013

    I found the following comment in an article covering this over-reaction from the authorities. A way to get active on the issue. What she did was dumb, but it does not deserve expulsion and absolutely does not deserve felony charges:

    User: [ideasrule]

    Guys and girls, we should be engaging in activism instead of just posting comments! I’ve collected the sites and emails offered by other users into one place: petition: []

    Police department complaint form: []
    School superintendent:
    School principal:

    The other email someone offered,, is of “Crime Prevention Practioner” Lyn Bryan and it doesn’t work (my email was blocked).
    Remember that the school principal is a reasonable person who rightly thinks the girl didn’t intend any harm, so we should be supportive of him.

    Link to this
  42. 42. halger 1:48 pm 05/2/2013

    And yet in 1934, the production of acetylene (water and calcium carbide) was considered a ‘harmless gas’ to facilitate a Halloween prank:

    Link to this
  43. 43. centromere 2:06 pm 05/2/2013

    @40. JtSamson

    What makes you think the individual in question would be a “future engineer or scientist”? Because she built an explosive device? That seems a little far-fetched to me. I suspect there is a low correlation between those who build and set off explosive devices in their teens and those who subsequently become engineers or scientists. Still, if you think you can show otherwise, I’m ready to examine your evidence.

    Link to this
  44. 44. CCSSIMath 2:22 pm 05/2/2013

    Pour hot water into a plastic milk bottle and put the cap on. In 30 seconds the top will blow off. Arrestable offense?

    Link to this
  45. 45. marclevesque 3:01 pm 05/2/2013

    Homemade acid bombs can be fairly innocuous, like a vinegar and baking soda bomb –>

    But they can also be very dangerous depending on the chemicals used and their concentration –> [ Homemade Chemical Bomb Events and Resulting Injuries ]

    Link to this
  46. 46. ideonexus 3:07 pm 05/2/2013

    Unfortunately, Scientific American’s moderators won’t let me post the link to it, but there is a petition requesting the police drop the charges. It currently has 15,000 signatures.

    I’m sorry Scientific American’s censorship division doesn’t want you to see the link. So everyone will have to google it themselves. Let’s see if the staff allow this comment to stand.

    Link to this
  47. 47. ironoxen 4:13 pm 05/2/2013

    Curious kids are the smart ones… The ones who will make our world better.
    We can treat them like this and have them use that curiosity and intelligent to make only themselves better at our expense.

    I am absolutely sure that this kind of treatment contributes to kids who want to shoot up schools and blow up people.

    Everyone involved – Teachers, the principal, the prosecutor – should all be charged with contributing to terrorism.

    Link to this
  48. 48. niel_malan 5:23 pm 05/2/2013

    If the child was playing a prank she would not have been caught so easily.

    Here’s a question that I’d like to see answered: this experiment is one that needs to be done outdoors. Does this child have any open space other than the school grounds available for doing such experiments?

    Link to this
  49. 49. QuipsTravails 6:35 pm 05/2/2013

    You can use google satellite and see the gazebo mentioned in the police report – it is just to the west of the lake on the campus, near a large lawn between two outbuildings.

    The report also lists that she was with ONE other student. It is pretty clear that, whether or not she thought this through, she did not intend to harm the school or its students. I concur with the above poster that it’s not unlikely that she was responsibly looking for a wide open area.

    Link to this
  50. 50. TheBartBarton 7:27 pm 05/2/2013

    Hey marclevesque, I think it was you that misinterpreted the article, even more.

    Link to this
  51. 51. lawandaharris 7:51 pm 05/2/2013

    There are laws and when one breaks them, there is punishment. We live in a multi-cultural country, yet the same laws apply to everyone. The same opportunities are also available to anyone who wants to achieve success. We have laws against discrimination as well.

    Many people throughout history have sacrificed and suffered so that we could attain the freedoms we have in this country. Don’t denigrate that by taking an extreme view because you have anger issues, Ms. Lee.

    Link to this
  52. 52. leaf6 8:56 pm 05/2/2013

    “Many people throughout history have sacrificed and suffered so that we could attain the freedoms we have in this country.” I agree with this, but I believe DNLee’s reaction to this is perfectly appropriate and understandable. Unfortunately there really was no ambiguity in this case, but the questions she brings up is still relevant since it is a fact that a significant proportion of minorities are still disadvantaged and exploited. The stereotypes on TV reaffirm that.

    Things Kiera could have done better: take observational notes, wear safety glasses, use a fume hood (She suspected that the reaction would make smoke.), don’t put the lid on the bottle when it is pretty obvious that gas is being produced within the first few seconds of the reaction

    She is definitely no Taylor Wilson (the fourteen-year-old kid who built a fusion reactor in his parents’ garage). Wilson took a risk and thankfully it didn’t result in a nuclear meltdown. Think about it; he could’ve been making nuclear weapons.

    Link to this
  53. 53. slothrr 8:56 pm 05/2/2013

    Here is a petition urging the Polk County School District not to expel Kiera Wilmot, and to support their science students instead:

    Link to this
  54. 54. DNLee 1:09 am 05/3/2013

    If this had been any student, even a white male student, under similar circumstances then I would still feel the need to speak out against stifling curiosity and criminalizing him/her.
    Would I react the same? I’m not sure. I’m definitely couching this young lady’s situation in the very real reality that exists in this nation for many public school children, especially minority kids and poor/working class white kids. They get served a raw deal. They are not given the benefit of the doubt and they don’t tend to have access to the resources to keep them from the criminal justice system.
    I mean, why did the school officer even call the State ADA in the first place? They couldn’t figure this out, make some calls, ejudicate this matter themselves? That’s the mess I’m talking about, not letting principals handle things and requiring a LEGAL response to school matters. These types of policies have a disproportionately negative consequences to poorer people and communities of color.

    If the fact that these disparities make you uncomfortable, then please help to eradicate the policies that produce/maintain them. But don’t tell me that my reality isn’t valid and shouldn’t be discussed because you don’t think or feel it’s that way. I live at the intersection of race and sex and the experience life in this nation in a way that may be different than yours. This nation isn’t as fair as we have romanticized it to be.

    I’m optimistic that this will come out okay, but not because I think the School Board & DA will come to their senses on their own. NO, I don’t trust that. Public attention and accountability on this issue will be the needed to keep folks from making this girl disappear.
    Will she be a scientist or engineer later in if this whole thing shakes out? I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean her interest in science is any less important or valid. I don’t need to prove or demonstrate that such kids will become a scientist. I know that many of us who are scientists and engineers can TOTALLY relate to her curiosity/activity and we are thankful that no one was hurt, damage was caused and that alarmist adults didnt criminalize us.

    I am angry. I’m angry that kids everyday are treated harshly and not nurtured. I think it’s a righteous anger. So, no I don’t need to not feel it, acknowledge those feelings or not freak out.

    Good for you if you’re privileged enough to live in a community where punishment disparities don’t exist. But I haven’t experienced such a reality, and neither have many, many people calling attention to the discipline gap and school-to-prison culture our nation is cultivating.

    I worry about the already lack of participation of STEM by under represented communities and if folks see a kid like Kiera – with good grades, no problems – get criminalized then our average and mischievous ones surely don’t stand a chance.

    Link to this
  55. 55. Chryses 6:43 am 05/3/2013

    It will be interesting to see if the accused acknowledges that her irresponsible and ill-considered behavior was the original problem, subsequently exacerbated by the apparent over reaction of the school staff.

    Link to this
  56. 56. DNLee 8:38 am 05/3/2013

    That Geraldo Rivera response is for the birds. This glaring miscarriage of justice and disparity and you focus on how much she needs to admit she was wrong….this brought it on your self attitude in the face of systematic policies that penalize certain segments..

    This burden of perfect behavior, no mistakes allowed that is placed on some people is not only overwhelming, it is insane.

    Link to this
  57. 57. scidancer 9:10 am 05/3/2013

    There are so many things wrong with this story.

    The language and terms used tell you about the school and the cops and the district attorney. They avoid really describing what occurred as an “explosion.” Explosions can be very tiny – such as here, it only blew the top off the bottle, all the way to lethal and large. “Detonations” are more powerful though we seldom use the term. Explosion as a term is poorly understood and its common use in public media creates an hysterical response, regardless of size or velocity.

    The people charging her are using disgusting, cowardly, sociopathic language which avoids any personal responsibility for the damage they are doing to her. Instead they choose words which distract us into a defensive range of attacks on her and hero claims for themselves.

    “bad choice” – “breach of conduct” – “safe and orderly” – “learning environment” – “code of conduct” – “conveying the message” – “consequences to actions” – “we will not compromise the safety and security”

    No doubt, if they have to climb down from this they will justify themselves with claims of “an overabundance of caution” – another ugly phrase devoid of responsibility or human sensibility.

    None of those phrases is right. I’ve seen a lot of commentators here and elsewhere latch onto the “bad choice” phrase or go for a rules-violation claim with “code of conduct.” Both applied in an absolutist manner. Forget it. The worst possible choices were made by the school and then the predictably over reactive cop or cops and the prosecutor (who should have stopped the whole pile-on parade right there).

    Then there is her color. Not white. The author of the Scientific American post, DNLee, which Abby links to is black and currently on a science expedition in Tanzania. While there is no direct mention of the student’s color in the reports and as a result, by mere definition, DNLee jumps to a conclusion about race as a reason for the pile-on, it is a not unreasonable jump. I think it totally reasonable, in my own experiences (I am white, DNLee is black, but I’ve seen enough of this unstated bias causing harsher penalties).

    True, as some have noted, this also happens to white kids and I’ve seen that as well. And with the current hyper-vigilant state of what has become a cowardly and senseless society, that urge to punish ever more harshly for what were once barely noticed “offenses” has become a norm, an ominous norm.

    Still, I think DNLee is right to be angry that a black youngster (young woman, really, my age is showing) should get this treatment is all too familiar. Remember the “explosion” (technically right word) only blew the top off a bottle (much smaller than what we as kids used to do decades ago) – combined with the oppressive over-vigilant and badly over-hero’d state “actors” is simply repulsive in the extreme.

    The only people who should be suffering here and prosecuted here are the officious school officials, the cops and the prosecutor. You bet that won’t happen.

    Link to this
  58. 58. bosleyalderman 9:25 am 05/3/2013

    I think mistakes will happen in a chemistry class; with or without the presence of a professor.

    At the same time, the “M” in STEM does not stand for “minority”; unfortunately, that seems to be the focus of many of these comments. Children in the United States are falling behind in STEM regardless of race, creed or color; that should be the focus.

    Poor school performance is highly correlated with SES, ethnicity, number of parents in the home, etc. If a connection to achievement is being made, it should start there; not with the over-reaction of the school and police authorities.


    Bosley Alderman

    Link to this
  59. 59. scidancer 9:36 am 05/3/2013

    Something I meant to get to in my previous post but forgot along the way. This young lady didn’t make any bad choices. She made a great set of choices. She was eager-beaver enough to get in to school to try out something. Basic prerequisites for any scientist and good for her! God knows we are losing out badly in scientific pursuits these days.

    I have tons of kids (young men and women, again, my age is showing) who are avoiding any technical subjects just because they seem as though they might take some concentration and might be more difficult (thereby they exercise and “overabundance of caution” to protect the security of their grade points). Merely anticipating the most basic of HTML code seems to cause terror or at least panic (perhaps teaching tech of any kind is terrorism?).

    This young lady ought to be held up as an example (a good example, not the one she is being strung up for now) and she should be rewarded for her enterprise. She should be a good hire.

    While I am at it let me not forget to express my admiration for DNLee. A scientist, clearly relishing what she does and, I have to think, a great role model. For women, for black women, for anyone.

    Women in my classes too often wilt at the idea of writing code and I am always bring up people such as Diana Merry who was hired at Xerox PARC as a secretary and went on to invent BitBLT in 1973 (bit block transfer – responsible for easy and simple overlapping windows and popups on computer screen everywhere) and one of the original developers of the Smalltalk language. And that is just the start.

    I am currently both enjoying and agonizing over “Bletchley Park” on PBS which concerns a brilliant group of women code breakers during WWII who come together in the early 50′s to solve a murder spree. Their brilliance is delightful, entertaining and inspiring. Their station in life at this point, as repressed homemakers and minor employees, hiding their talent, is agonizing. You want so much more for them.

    Pardone – the digression, but it relates.

    Link to this
  60. 60. NettieB 9:43 am 05/3/2013

    The “school-to-prison” pipeline is real and the case of Kiera Wilmot only serves to highlight the fact that, according to UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, one million – or one in nine – middle school and high school students suspended in 2009-2010 included 24 percent of black students and 7.1 percent of white students. The author points to this but some of the commenters here chose to ignore it.

    Educational disparities are also often ignored (unless it directly impacts you or your children). When I was Kiera Wilmot’s age I was given resources to “make stupid mistakes”. I asked for chemistry sets, not dolls for Christmas. My mother (black woman) was a computer programmer and my younger sister became an engineer. I am a STEM researcher, educator and artist. I work with urban kids who are culturally diverse. I acknowledge that the permission I had to make mistakes in science and art are not granted for students like Wilmot. No today.

    When will people get it that we live in a world that is not post-racial, where the world is not a level playing field… and advocate strongly for those who need our support the most?

    Link to this
  61. 61. scidancer 10:06 am 05/3/2013

    I promise to be short.

    This girl needs to be given a grade for this. At least an A+. What she did is basic to the success of everything else. Regardless of all her other assignments and good grades, were she without the excitement, interest and enterprise she showed here all the other good work would eventually throttle down to idle. This eagerness to try experiments is what gives value to all the rest of her studies. I say at least a A+ grade for her. And I do hope this doesn’t stop her.

    Link to this
  62. 62. Blackhawk3339 3:44 pm 05/3/2013

    Works bombs are nasty, dangerous items. Back in high school (20+ years ago), some friends and I used to make them. They don’t make smoke – they make clouds of toxic chlorine gas. The don’t go ‘bang’, they explode with significant force, enough that I’ve seen one tear a steel mailbox to shreds (I was a troubled teenager – I grew up.) They produce enough heat that they melt the bottles they were in. They make a shotgun seem quiet. Make no mistake – this wasn’t a firecracker. This was an explosive. Not only that, it is an extremely unpredictable one, as the reaction is facilitated by heat. What may take three or four minutes in the fall can explode in seconds in hot weather, and that fact alone has sent more than a few kids to the ER with nasty injuries.

    I’d also suggest that the teen wasn’t telling the whole truth. If she just thought it made smoke, then why did she seal the bottle? This wasn’t a science experiment. This was a kid screwing around with something she had to know was dangerous, and had to know wasn’t acceptable.

    Does she deserve to be arrested? Yeah. She set off a bomb at a school. Felony? No. “Kids will be kids?” Also no.

    Link to this
  63. 63. edprochak 4:24 pm 05/3/2013

    I agree that she should not be arrested. MAYBE detention. She seems to be a bright kid trying something out, and there are so few of those kids these days.

    this School severely overreacted, as many schools are, catching kids errors in the trawling net of zero tolerance.

    I haven’t read the other posts yet, but I cannot let one comment go by unchallenged. DNLee, you wrote:
    “Relevant engaging lessons quash most behavior issues, not the other way around!”

    Sorry but this is wrong. As the husband to a very dedicated high school teacher, I know. We have unfortunately dysfunctional schools trying to teach students from dysfunctional families. there is a need for students to stay in the seat and maintain quiet. Not so the teacher can lecture all day, but to get basic instruction. Even good students cannot learn when others are disruptive. This happens every day in some school systems.

    No matter how good a high school science teacher I am, I cannot present a relevant, engaging lesson to students whose first priority is getting the latest gossip, or arguing, even fighting with each other.

    As I said, we have two dysfunctional systems. There is a lot of work to do to fix it. Blaming the teachers is NOT the solution.


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  64. 64. brandonabell 5:55 pm 05/3/2013

    It’s unclear to me why people think there is some sort of distinction, that it wasn’t really a science experiment, because she “wasn’t in class.” If a student paints a picture outside, without being supervised by their art teacher, is it all of a sudden not art?

    If kids are experimenting in the wrong places, it’s OUR failing, not theirs, if they don’t have the right places to do it in. A child’s school day should be absolutely FULL of experimentation. But instead, it’s now a training ground for living in a dull, thoughtless, authoritarian society. Wonderful.

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  65. 65. rekastner 8:29 pm 05/3/2013

    The previous administration started a war based on lies resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. This young lady indulges in a silly prank and gets slapped with a felony charge while the person whose war of choice killed innocent people gets a half-billion $$ library. If this isn’t a double standard then I don’t know what is.

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  66. 66. DNLee 1:37 am 05/4/2013

    Sitting still to learn is a top down approach to education. I don’t agree with it. Classroom management matters, but it doesn’t have to look a certain way. When I provided engaging relevant lessons and earned my students respect – because I was fair, not arbitrary, patient, consistent, AND listened to them, almost all of the routine behavioral issues went away.
    Disruptions are sometimes to of boredom. And today’s public school environment is boring as hell. I had to practice self-discipline not to blurt out, fall,asleep and raise a ruckus when I was observing a class.

    I don’t know exactly how dysfunction matters. Folks say that a lot. To me it’s a catch all & dog whistle to signal that *some* populations are just inherently messed up, prone to trouble, poor performance, etc. It is used to justify these management heavy teaching approaches.

    Relevant teaching engages students, and when they are meaningfully engaged (& guided, mentored, supervised) they tend to get into less trouble. I stand by that.

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  67. 67. Chryses 7:10 am 05/4/2013

    @56. DNLee

    “That Geraldo Rivera response is for the birds …”

    I don’t think so. It would demonstrate that the accused recognizes that she was part of this problem, and would also demonstrate that she has the maturity to understand that her participation is required to resolve it.

    “This burden of perfect behavior, no mistakes allowed that is placed on some people is not only overwhelming, it is insane.”

    Were such an expectation commonly placed on people, it would be difficult to understand, yes.

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  68. 68. Nicholasunik 7:33 am 05/4/2013

    It seems that in our societies, moral intolerance is being replaced by robotic obsessiveness. Both have in common that they fail, almost deliberately, to take account of real circumstances in an intelligent manner. Rules were invented, not to be obeyed, but to take account of uncertainty and lack of information. The consequences of applying those rules had to be accepted because of the more serious consequences of not applying them. Where we have fuller information, as obviously is the case with this girl, the converse needs to be considered.

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  69. 69. jgrosay 9:12 am 05/4/2013

    In Madrid, Spain, a high school teacher, A Hernandez-Cuenca, received a fine of one month of separation of job with no monthly salary (fine was paid during summer vacational period) because, when in a practice with the students, one of them took a bottle containing a reactive prepared many weeks before by another teacher in the facility, a reactive that is inherently unstable, and the bottle exploded, causing some burns and tattoing in the student who handled the bottle. Responsibilities remain sometimes ‘in the cloud’, and nobody knows when and into which person the lightning is going to fall.

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  70. 70. m allworth 2:16 pm 05/4/2013

    I had to ‘sign in’

    Pranks years ago now result in ruined lives!

    OMG! Just where are we all going……………

    Link to this
  71. 71. diacad 5:38 pm 05/8/2013

    I was a science-oriented teenager in the 1950s when things were relatively wide open, for better or for worse. Most of my fellow geeks exploded things in one way or another; it was a rite of passage. Even then, however, we considered it poor judgement to do so on school grounds; adults were never at all sure that we wouldn’t harm ourselves or others in the process. And we were bright enough to guess at what they would do to us. Today, after several tragic deployments of home-made bombs, I understand it would be even less tolerated, although I think arrest and expulsion in this case was excessive. Surely there were less drastic consequences available to the school authorities, assuming this was a first offense.

    That being said, aside from exposure to corrosive chemicals involved in drain cleaners, Kiera’s “bomb” was relatively benign. The “explosion” from the “Works” bomb that got Kiera arrested did not involve flame, just the rapid buildup of gas pressure in a plastic bottle. This “bomb” was far below the threat level implied by some others, although I suggest there are safer and less messy ways to make a more impressive “bang”. But just how to do that, as they say, is an exercise for the reader!

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  72. 72. Godan 9:02 pm 05/8/2013

    The reality is a little different from what was reported in this article. The reality is that the student had searched or found on the Internet how to make a homemade chemical bomb. A simple search for toilet cleaner and aluminum will lead one to several YouTube videos showing exactly how this is done. The student showed up early (7:00 a.m.) to set off her bomb. Yes, it exploded as planned and she got busted. Maybe creating a chemical bomb on a school site is okay at Scientific American, but at most campuses such activities are frowned upon.

    By the way, all the stupid people in the videos are young white males, showing that stupidity does not have color lines. I am willing to bet that the next white male who sets off a bomb at school will also get arrested. What in the world are you thinking?

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  73. 73. westybsa 1:38 am 05/9/2013

    Absolutely INSANE! ENDOFSTORY!!!!!!!!!

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  74. 74. GWIA? 8:33 pm 07/24/2013

    Where are we as a country where it is unreasonable to tell kids to sit still, and be quiet in class? To not ruin the education of all the other students? As usual, though, everything is racial, thus if we have to tell Black kids to sit down and shut up, telling kids to sit down and shut up is wrong. We should just let them be, not suspension, no nothing, maybe tell their parents and hope something happens. And what the other nineteen kids in the class, some of whom might want to learn? Well I’d bet no liberal has ever thought of that. Few liberals have ever set foot inside an inner city public school, nor will they have to. They just read about a “gap,” get real angry, and then demand that “something be done” about it.

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  75. 75. GWIA? 8:34 pm 07/24/2013

    If you look at the race “gap” in suspension rates and compare it with the race “gap” in murder and theft, you find that the former gap is lower.

    Link to this

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