Kiera Wilmot is a 16-year-old Black female high school student in Florida who is facing the permanent destruction of her young life because of intellectual curiosity. A Black girl with a curious mind and an inclination towards science—in a country that places 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading, a place where STEM in college and the workplace still reveals very White and male spaces, ones often hostile to Black women—is someone to be punished, not nurtured?
According to Miami New Times, Kiera “got good grades and had a perfect behavior record.” Thus when the following incident occurred, it would make sense that who she is (beyond the need to overly punish Black students, including Black girls) as an individual would matter.
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. The reaction caused a small explosion that caused the top to pop up and produced some smoke. No one was hurt and no damage was caused.
Despite the school officials, including the principal, agreeing that there was no malicious intent and that it was an accident, the reaction to the accident is incredibly extreme. She was expelled from school. With expulsion, any college plans that she had are severely altered if even still possible. Being that she was a good student, she may have had college in mind. Finishing a diploma through an expulsion program is not what most colleges want to see in an applicant’s record. However, this is the least of her worries. She faces criminal charges as well. She was “charged with possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. She will be tried as an adult.” Expulsion. Criminal charges. Tried as an adult. Her life may never be the same.
When I first heard about the story and shared a few tweets (which I posted on Storify), the first thing that came to my mind is a scene from the film People Like Us. In the film “Frankie” has a troubled son “Josh” who creates an explosion at school and does cause serious damage. However, “Josh” escapes trouble for this (despite being a consistently problematic child) because his White mother “Frankie” lets the Black female principal know that it’s the school’s fault that he had access to chemicals and his curiosity related to things discussed in science anyway. He gets off that time. ”Josh” is eventually expelled, however, when he later physically attacks another child. He had to draw blood before facing expulsion, and even so, he never faced criminal charges. This film (a good film no less) came to mind because this kid is everything Kiera is NOT. She is a good student. She has no record of trouble. She is Black and female not White and male. Her administrators admitted one thing (understanding it was an accident and no harm was done) yet feel that extreme punishment is the only thing acceptable. One of the reasons why I liked this film is because it REVEALED White privilege (despite these characters not having class privilege until they came into some money) and I don’t even think the filmmakers intended that. That’s White privilege—not seeing how that cinematic situation reveals what occurs in real life; “getting off” and “getting by” in ways never afforded to Black students.
In the post The Case Around Fla, Teen Kiera Wilmot is Part of a Bigger, More Disturbing Pattern on Davy D’s Hip Hop Corner, the author points out the trend of criminalization and extreme reaction to Black students’ behavior. Handcuffed 5-year-olds and a Black student accused of shoplifting for “fitting the description” are among the examples provided. Story after story seems to surface where an extreme reaction is taken to a small problem when the student is Black. And while the focus is often on Black male students, Black female students face more criminalization than any other students, other than Black male students. In the post The Effects of Unchecked Criminalization: Teen Charged With Felony For Science Experiment by Sesali Bowen on Feministing, the author addresses the point of whether or not this is about the “safety” of other students:
I call bullshit. This is not about the “safety and security” of students and staff at Bartow High School. This was about setting an example, at the expense of Wilmot, and sending a message that even (mis)perceived threats will be dealt with swiftly and harshly. The unfortunate truth is that in America, those perceptions are heavily tied up in notions of race, class, and gender.
Race, gender, class and more impact everything in our society because they are inherently tied into who we are as individuals and a society. The myth that despite the evidence of Black students being criminalized, somehow race is not a factor here is ludicrous at this point, and to me, ultimately unacceptable. The question of whether or not race matters is not an IF question but a HOW question. Clearly, the reaction to school violence (notice how if a White male commits school or mass violence on a national scale, the reaction is to police more people of colour), the criminalization of Black students who will eventually feed into Prison Industrial Complex and something else less obvious but still sinister and a factor no less—the silencing of creativity and intellectual curiosity has occurred. Students at that school received a message loud and clear and it is not one about some “crazed bomber, bad student” that some who responded to this story suggest. It is a message that curiosity should be punished, not explained. Instead of detention for two weeks where Kiera could spend time with her Chemistry teacher learning more about what chemicals cause what reactions and why, and conducting experiments in controlled environments, her education and now possibly her freedom for years is over.
Who wins from this? Another Black family is harmed. Another set of classmates learned not to be intellectually inquisitive. Prison Industrial Complex may get a new slave. Who wins, indeed? The problem is I know who wins. Those who do not want Black, female or Black female bodies anywhere near science. Those who need to believe that to be Black is to be criminal and there is no nuance to be had here. Those who know deep down in their hearts that they would react completely differently (with more concern) to this story if she were White. The worst part is that people had to march, beg and plead for someone like George Zimmerman to be arrested for MURDER, and it took 45 days for that to occur. Uncanny how SWIFT and how EXTREME the reaction is to Kiera.