Another fine mess.

Dr Chuck Pearson

In the case of Kiera Wilmot

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Originally posted on Facebook on May 2, 2013.

Okay. I’m going to write this up and try to be even-handed with it, both from the perspective of being something of a science advocate and from the perspective for someone who’s essentially responsible for chemical safety and has been educated far better than he wants to be on what the lawyers can do given a little space.

What I’m providing a link to is a police report, published in The Ledger of Lakeland, Florida on April 23rd, concerning a small “explosion” and arrest of a student on the grounds of Bartow High School:

No one was hurt in the morning explosion, nor was school property damaged, said Principal Ron Pritchard.

Kiera Roslyn Wilmot, of *address redacted*, was charged with making, possessing or discharging a destructive device and with possessing or discharging weapons on school grounds. Both charges are felonies.

The girl told authorities she was conducting a science experiment, according to Bartow police, but science teachers at the school said they knew nothing about it. She also said she thought the materials would produce only smoke, not an explosion, police said.

Pritchard said he was standing nearby when the student left the drink bottle behind the cafeteria, near the lake on the school’s east side.

“It was next to the gazebo by the lake,” he said. “I wasn’t standing too far away when it happened. I just heard the pop, and I turned around. I thought it was a firecracker at first.”

Household materials were used to create the explosion, said Bartow police Lt. Gary McLin. He declined to say what those materials were, but said the information is available through the Internet.

Pritchard said the girl didn’t leave the area after the bottle exploded.

“She left it on the ground, and she stayed there,” he said. “We went over to where she was. She saw that we saw her, so she didn’t take off.”

He said she was taken to the school’s office, where police took her into custody.

Now, let’s be plain: it was published as a police report, so that’s why an address appears in the piece in the newspaper; that’s standard operating procedure, and we can bicker about how proper that procedure is another time. This also bears noting: no further articles were published about this event in either the local Lakeland paper immediately, or in the three major newspapers in the cities surrounding Bartow (the Orlando Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune, and the Tampa Bay Times).

As near as I can tell, the thing that actually moved the story was a news report on WTSP-TV yesterday at the midday (the publish time is 12:32 PM, May 1), where the principal was almost concilatory about the circumstances (“she has never been in trouble before, ever”) but where the school district made very clear that it was holding the line on calling for discipline (“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”). A blogger at CNET got a hold of the story with appropriately snarky commentary, and congratulations, we’re off to the viral-story races, with most of the commentary coming from scientific and liberal media of the “America hates science” variety (not hyperbole, the actual headline Salon.com slapped on a Scientific American reprint).

After the fact, the Miami New Times got feedback from the district and the Bartow police on the event, and pretty much gets a standard party line along with the full details of the police report. Clearly the kid wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. But the “common household chemicals” she mixed, and sealing off the plastic bottle, created an explosive device. It’s a clear violation of the district’s student code of conduct. There is only one penalty for that violation, and that’s expulsion.

Now, given my position (the sole guy responsible for chemistry laboratories at a small college, who was quite happy to be a grunt teacher/theory jock and ignore all the reality about being responsible for laboratories in a previous existence), I am probably just a bit more sensitive to the reality of Bartow High School’s situation than the average bear, and I am CERTAINLY more sensitive than I was two years ago. And I just went to hideous pains above this to make sure I had the facts – both of the event AND of the reporting – so that I was certain I wasn’t coming out of left field with this take.

But: given the realities of 2013, I cannot blame anybody at Bartow High School or the police for doing what they have done thus far.

I have to say up front that not only am I not a lawyer, actual lawyers laugh up-front at anything I say. But put yourself in the principal’s shoes. Loud “POP” goes off on school grounds. Your first thought is “oh, dear God, it’s happened here, and now I have to find out how many student casualties I have.” When you find the explosive, you find it’s a classic metal-and-acid experiment, and the student confesses “I only thought it would smoke, I didn’t know it would explode” – she wasn’t aware of the risk of the “experiment” she had done.

Oh, what she’s done – only make hydrogen gas, in a closed container, under high pressure. There was pretty clear risk of somebody, most likely that student, getting hurt.

So that relief that you felt when you discovered it wasn’t malicious turns into “oh crap – if anybody had been hurt, this was done on school grounds – we’re the liable party.” That’s why ANY proper laboratory agreement a student enters into when that student starts taking ANY chemistry laboratory at ANY school forbids them from doing experiments that the instructor doesn’t know about – if something goes wrong, even if it’s a rogue experiment, the instructor STILL takes on duty of care, and the instructor (and the institution – that means you, Mr. Principal) see the lawyers first.

Therefore the moment this happens, not only to be fair and evenhanded, but to ACTIVELY play defense against any lawsuit that somebody might file in the future if something goes wrong, you have to demonstrate that you’re following your policies concerning possession and discharge of a destructive device on school property, and you have to do that now. What do the policies say? Explusion. Oh, and we have to refer this to the police to ensure they take action. That’s it. That’s all you can do. Sorry, Ms. Wilmot. I know it was just a bad decision. But rules are rules.

This is how a litigious society turns completely stupid. Again: Ron Pritchard, the principal of Bartow High School, did his job, and I would daresay he did his job well. He has done what is necessary to protect his school and the Polk County School District from future liability. That does not change the fact that the task he had to carry out was absolutely moronic, that the moment he saw the circumstances and the individual impacted he should have had the capacity to administer mercy, and that given the substantial social obstacles already facing a black woman with any curiosity whatsoever, to slap the words “felony charges” next to the name of Kiera Wilmot for this is a caliber of injustice I just can’t quite deal with.

(Yeah, the racial angle. The moment you actually read any of the stories about this, the fact that this is a young black woman smacks you upside the head. It sucks beyond belief that in 2013, a person even needs to mention this. However, please understand that the moment I read this story, I got this little knot in my stomach and it will not go away – and I can’t imagine that I don’t have more than a few colleagues for whom the same thing happened. I love all my students, and I want them all to succeed – but I also see the track records, and I see too few minority students get through ANY science major, and I see too few of THEM actually pursue science as a vocation. And I’ve also heard too many tales of the confident white guys who blow things up for fun, and too few consequences from far more dangerous behavior than this. For the central character of this story to be a young black woman DEVASTATES ME. Seeing the video of her young friends being so confused and upset by the response is HORRIBLE. I hope there aren’t a ton of black kids who take this as confirmation that the people in charge don’t want them to learn stuff. But I worry.)

This is what I believe: We don’t live in a society that hates science, or education, or anything of that sort. We live in a society that hates risk, of any sort, and will ruthlessly punish anyone who creates risk for anyone else, and if science and education are collateral damage then so be it but please understand it’s the risk we oppose – especially if that risk even raises half a chance of lawyers on our tail chasing after millions of dollars from us that we don’t have anyway.

Rage against the stupidity of Bartow High School and the Polk County School District (and the whole stinkin’ state of Florida while you’re at it – I was raised there, I give you permission) if you must. But rage also at policies upon policies, inspired by decades of lawsuits upon lawsuits, that force educators to cover their rears at every last turn. And understand why so many of us in education hear a certain line Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, about the first thing the revolutionaries must do, and we take sad pleasure from its speaking.

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Written by chuckpearson

2 May 2013 at 16:08

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