In the case of Kiera Wilmot

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 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.

Facebook status rant, December 14, 2012

So, apparently unspeakable tragedy happened in Connecticut today. I’m not going to belittle it; it’s historic in its magnitude, and the fallout will be happening for a very long time.

But I don’t GET it. I was with 30 middle schoolers this afternoon, for one last time in this month-and-a-half long program we’ve been doing (and that I’ve been shilling for the company). I got to play “random question!” with them, and go to all kind of scientific and silly and philosophical and ridiculous ideas with them like you can only get from a group of middle schoolers. I got to thank their parents for getting to work with them, and encourage them going forward. I was loud, madcap, passionate, all that.

I’m trying to put together in my head how the one thing could happen when I experience a completely different thing. I can’t get there.

I’ve hit a point in life where I only know how to do one thing, and that’s fly around everywhere I can as wildly as I can explaining as many things as I can while being as positive as I can and affirming everyone that I can. I don’t expect appreciation for that, or even want it. Honestly, the excitement in a kid as a thing makes sense to them for the first time, or as they feel freedom to ask weird and wonderful questions for the first time – that is its own reward.

But if I can encourage those of you who care to read these thoughts somehow, it is this way: the Golden Rule still matters. Giving to others the way you would like for people to be giving to you still WORKS. Think about that, and ACT on that. Instead of another complaint on Facebook about another way in which this world is sad and broken and over, make the world better. Go. Do.

Facebook status gratitude, June 4, 2012

For all the students who tell me how much they owe me for this, that, or the other thing: know that I owe this woman every bit as much, and more, starting with a general science class in 8th grade when I wasn’t all that sure where I was headed in life, and going all the way through however much biology and chemistry I could get out of her. Every opportunity I had to go beyond Hilliard in the sciences, this is the teacher who opened those doors to me and showed me what was possible. Hopefully all I’m doing is paying the debt I owe her forward.

Happy retirement, Janet Higginbotham Conner. (You’ll always be Miss Higginbotham to me.)

Janet Higginbotham Conner, June 4, 2012

Grade D Culture

Originally posted on the Moveable Type blog on September 29, 2007; reposted to the same place on November 14, 2008, when there was a serious lull in posting and I was getting tired of seeing the same thing on the front page day-in and day-out.  “…and I felt like this page should have something important on it. And I got reminded of this essay all over again. And it honestly says what I’m feeling right now better than anything else I could possibly say. It might even say what I’m feeling about my life better than anything I’ve ever written.  If I have to leave a bloggy epitath, this should be it.”

I have no intention of leaving bloggy epitath for the long term, but here it is again anyway.

Shortly after I started at Middle Georgia in the fall of 2000, I read the seventh – and my first – state-of-the-system address given by the chancellor of the University System of Georgia at the time, Stephen Portch. It, frankly, inspired me. It gave me the idea that I was working in the right place. It was very specific about setting goals for the whole university system – and for specific schools in the university system – and relatively specific about specific accomplishments that were in place and accomplishments that needed to happen.

But when I read the speech, I found one primary thing resonating with me more than anything else – in the midst of grading the University System of Georgia for performance to date, he assigned the culture in which he worked a grade of “D”. And very deliberately explained why.

It is important to remember we don’t operate in a vacuum. We operate in a society and in an environment that has many challenges. On culture, I grade a “D.” This is not unique to Georgia. We continue – in my mind — to have a pervasive, anti-intellectual culture in this country.

When Sherita Denson — a bright young African-American student at South Atlanta High School – writes an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and describes how she must endure being called a “nerd” and a “loser” to succeed academically – we have a grade D culture.

When a basketball player with a troubled past gets more ink than the number of new freshmen with perfect SATs – we have a grade D culture.

When I see more emotion generated over UGA’s weekend football parking than their Rhodes Scholar output – we have a grade D culture.

When we have too many young people who dream of playing in the NFL and NBA – and who have a better chance at winning the Georgia Lottery — we have a grade D culture.

When almost 90 percent of Georgia eighth graders watch TV two hours or more daily — we have a grade D culture.

When we have a culture where too many school boards spend time debating the need to doctor “evolution” out of science books, rather than focusing on preparing young people to face a technologically and scientifically-oriented society — we have a grade D culture.

When we can come up with the perfect plan to produce talented teachers, but when they graduate they choose the $80,000 non-teaching job with stock options over the $25,000 teaching post with long hours and metal detectors – we have a grade D culture.

It was one thing to say “hey! yeah! isn’t it time to change the world now?” as a young-punk, 28-year-old faculty member, new on the tenure track. But I wasn’t really prepared for how much that grade D culture would impact my day-to-day work as an education professional in Georgia.

What has boggled my mind as a professor, the more that I’ve seen it, has been the simple lack of expectation that adults have had for their children. It’s true all over the country, I know. But it’s true in Georgia (and in other places in the Southeast) in particular. In principle, we want our children to do well. But when they don’t do well, we make excuses for them. We understand their struggles. We look to give them a less stressful way.

And we don’t even consider that, if they could just work through those struggles and do a little bit more and push a little bit harder, the whole world might open up to them. In fact, we’re pretty sure that the whole world won’t open up to them. We think, honestly, that’s something that the kids from the big cities do. Or the big money school districts. Or the private schools. Or anywhere else but our own back yard.

(Now, playing football on Sundays? Ballin’ in the Association? Maybe even getting a preaching gig at a big church and getting to the high-five-figures of income? We might do that. But making important scientific discoveries? Becoming a writer who influences people’s thoughts and minds and lives? Being the rare transformative political leader who will actually improve the world instead of demagoguing the mess out of every issue? Sakes, even being the inspirational teacher who isn’t content to go to school and pick up a paycheck, but actually wants to develop students? Nope. Not us.)

The hard lesson that you have to learn, when you start in this business, is that changing the educational culture of a place – a city, a region, a state, maybe even a whole country – is difficult work. No. Check that. It’s nearly impossible. You’re working to spread a gospel – in my case, a gospel of science and the possibilities that the young thinkers might do great things – and you have to preach that gospel repeatedly, day in and day out, to have even a hope that a tenth of the people might actually hear you and take your words to heart.

But even then, when that small fraction of people hear you, their family and friends – and their family and friends have constructed different ideas and different visions of their future. And those visions didn’t usually include leaving the small town and seeking out great things to be done. Because people from Rome, Georgia (or Canton, or Trion, or Rockmart, or Cartersville) don’t do those things. The men find the steady jobs on graduation and support their families. The women stay at home and raise the children. And if that business hasn’t started by the time the kids hit 23, then, well, what’s the problem? What’s the holdup? We want grandkids, y’know.

I recognize that I’m a terribly blessed man, because I was pretty determined to get the heck out of Hilliard, Florida, when I graduated high school and go off and Do Great Things (whatever those things were), and my parents didn’t show any level of doubt in me. On the contrary, they showed disappointment whenever I showed even the slightest weakness. They didn’t punish me, but they made it abundantly clear that they thought I was brilliant, and that I Could Do Better. And that steady drumbeat of messages lasted while I was in college, even at points when I really had other things on my mind and I was annoyed by it. But it was a drumbeat. “We’re proud of you. You do good work. You should do better work and get rid of the B’s. You should be preparing for life after graduation. You’re going to be great. We’re proud of you.”

When I talk to students whose parents don’t even attempt to understand what’s going on with their schooling, how the college experience is changing them and their parents are offended by the changes and they’re feeling alienated and ostracized because of the changes, rather than encouraged…well, it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart over and over again. And the more I see it happen, the more I find myself wondering what in God’s name I’m doing here.

Not that anybody has to worry about me throwing in the towel at this point. I said this a while ago, and I was reminded of it this week, and it bears repeating:

Teaching is what I do; it’s who I am; it’s what my vocation is. For some people, this gig is nothing more sophisticated than a job, the thing they do that pays the bills. For me, I borrow Ludlow Porch’s line about being on the radio: “If anybody ever found out I’d do this for free, I’d be in Big Trouble.”

But I really wonder if it’s time to qualify that. I still have teaching experiences where it’s apparent that I’ve got kids who really want to give it everything, and parents who are willing to throw their backing behind it. (Special props at this point to a group of seven young people I’ve been meeting for the past three Tuesday nights, that I’ve taught a bit of chemistry to, and who have taken a couple of those days that had just been ruined beyond all repair and actually reminding me why it’s worth it.) But the more I look at the youth of 2007, the more I see the numbers of kids who really give it their all dwindling, and the number of kids who give it their all AND get the full round of support from their so-called loved ones dwindling even more rapidly.

I’m tired of the Grade D Culture. I don’t want to hit 65 and see the Grade D Culture still pervasive, and be asking questions about what more I could have done.

(Stephen Portch left the University System of Georgia in 2001. I left the University System of Georgia in 2003, convinced that I could best contribute to the challenge of creating a more educated Georgia outside of the University System.)

Bob Jones University Press

Posted on the Moveable Type blog, as well as on Growing Up Goddy, Jeff Eaton’s experiment dealing with Christian culture ex-pats, on August 15, 2007.  (I was seriously delighted that the second link Jeff featured was Brant Hansen’s old blog Kamp Krusty.) This was my first piece on the site.

Following up on Jeremy‘s post on theology (!) in mathematics curricula, I thought it only appropriate to post a Christian education publishing house’s website, and Bob Jones University Press absolutely fits the bill for being a flashpoint for those of us who grew up in the church.

Most people who would happen on a site entitled “Growing Up Goddy” would know the history of BJU, immortalized in the Steve Taylor classic “We Don’t Need No Colour Code” (“B.J. went and got a school/founded on caucasian rule/bumper sticker on his Ford/says ‘Honkies If You Love The Lord'”). While Bob Jones University no longer has a policy against interracial dating, many of its Fundamentalist distinctions remain (most notably for me as a science teacher, the efforts of the school to supportcreationist ideas). So you might be understandably nervous about their homeschooling press.

Surprisingly (depending on your choice of curricula), it’s not awful. I have actually taught out of BJU’s high school chemistry text. It does have a great deal of the language about understanding God’s nature from the chemical world that set Jeremy off, and it doesn’t do what I’d really like for a Christian text in the sciences to do – point out people of faith who made key contributions to chemistry. (Of course, if you did that, you’d have to mention Michael Faraday, and based on my loose understanding of the history, Faraday’s Sandemanian sect was no friend of the Baptists, and that might be a whole new can of worms.)

But much of the fundamental chemistry, the book does well, especially the descriptive stuff, such as the periodic law and the nature of chemical bonding and chemical structure. I actually had homeschooled high-school students deeper into VSEPR theory off of that book than I was able to get college students on a competing college textbook, despite the fact that I only met the homeschooled students once a week (as opposed to three times per week for college students).

And here’s where it’s BJU Press (and most other homeschool publishing houses) FTW: I defy you to find another high school chemistry text for $37. Anywhere. That was the single biggest reason the homeschool cooperative I worked with adopted the book in the first place.

As long as they pound the competition on cost-effectiveness and pay a measure of attention to standard curricula, hyper-conservative presses like Bob Jones are going to continue to dominate the homeschooling world.

(Now, if the only text you’d ever seen was the biology text, I might understand you having a slightly less accomodating view.)