When Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

Friday, June 07, 2013

By L. Michelle Odom and Naimah Johnson, participants in Echoing Ida
Kiera Wilmot

Kiera Wilmot was spiritually assaulted.  She was spiritually assaulted by the over-reaction of the school and justice systems to a science experiment she conducted that threatened to land her in prison.  We are grateful, to be sure, that the prosecutor eventually decided against pursuing this case; and that a generously spirited person, 18-year NASA veteran, Homer Hickam, learned of her story and provided Kiera and her sister Kayla with scholarships to the U.S. Space Academy.

Nevertheless we are concerned that the damage to this young sister has already been done, and that a larger message has been sent to similar aspiring Black girls.  What did Kiera learn by the reactions to her successful, though unauthorized and potentially dangerous, experiment?  How is her story similar to and different from other consumers of public education?  One wonders.  One is also challenged to contemplate further the experience of young girls of color, in the midst of developing their identity and sense of self, who learn what it is to be recognized as a criminal, before they have a chance to experience recognition as an upright individual.

Kiera Wilmot is the teenager who, on April 20th of this year, mixed together some household chemicals (“toilet bowl cleaner—essentially colored hydrochloric acid—and balls of aluminum foil in a small water bottle”), to see what would happen, as many creative, curious and scientific minds have done before her.  “The top flew off the bottle and a cloud of smoke erupted,” according to one report. That was just the beginning of the lessons Wilmot would receive as a result of this experiment.  This 16-year-old Black female, then an honor roll student at Bartow High School in Bartow, Polk County, Florida, was arrested by the school officer, and told she would be charged with “possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device.” No one was physically hurt, and no damage to school property occurred as a result of the experiment, according to accounts by the school principal and science teacher.

Still,  16 year old Kiera was suspended from school, threatened with felony charges, and later enrolled in an alternative “expulsion program” where she must remain until the next school year.  This was much more than the chemical reaction she hoped for; Kiera’s future almost went kaboom!

Social media activists sprung into action, setting up a Facebook page and petition, tweeting about the plight of this student, and seeking “Justice for Kiera.”  We will never know what might have happened to her without this response, and wonder about the many students whose intellectual curiosity is suppressed by a hostile and/or fearful academic climate.  We hear all the time about the need for more interest among students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines, especially among African Americans. According to recent reports from the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade: African Americans received only 7 percent of all STEM bachelor's degrees, 4 percent of master's degrees, and 2 percent of doctoral degrees.  Despite gains, women generally continue to confront sexism in science. So how is it when we have such a student, she is not encouraged, nurtured and supported in every way possible by all of our social institutions?  According to Professor Chistopher Emdin, “[w]ith her arrest, an amazing opportunity to teach her more about chemistry, help her deconstruct what she did wrong (scientifically or otherwise), and foster her curiosity were lost.  Instead, she was criminalized…This case runs counter to everything that good educators would or should do with an inquisitive student, and highlights many issues with science education (or education more broadly) for students of color.” 

Stifling a student’s curiosity is reminiscent of the days when Blacks were not allowed to read in this country.  The fear that reading would render one unsuitable for slavery was enough to criminalize the activity.   

We must question: What is feared now? Why did the system react so harshly?  Was it because Kiera Wilmot is a female or because she is Black, or perhaps, because of the intersection of both marginalized identities?  Does “zero tolerance” mean we have zero sense?  

Scientists ask questions, conduct experiments, make discoveries about our natural world and solve concrete problems.  It would seem we would nurture and value the scientist in all of us.  Why don’t we nurture that in young Black girls especially at a time when the behavior that is so often magnified is that which would contribute to keeping Black Women within roles that would reduce our opportunities for advancement, personal investment and upward mobility?  Young Black girls are bombarded with mainstream images of caricatured Black women; discriminatory type-castes that have historically been destructive to Black Women’s identity (Mammy, Jezebel, Video-Vixen) while little media or public attention is given to the incredible achievements by Black Women across communities and systems small and large. 

So many young Black girls identify with the images in mainstream media and have little promise to rest on for their future, because society has presented to them with a world where success, fame and media attention comes from criminalized activity, rather than educationally, spiritually sound practice, which can uplift them and their communities.

The response to Kiera’s experiment, and her endeavor in gaining new knowledge, was oppressive.  One would hope that the harsh reaction by the school and justice systems will only strengthen the student’s determination to pursue a career in science, not weaken her resolve. What’s more likely is that her curious nature and fearless zeal have been struck down by a false identity and the horrors of the criminalization of young girls of color. 

L. Michelle Odom and Naimah Johnson are participants in Echoing Ida - a project of Strong Families. They also write as a part of the Black Women’s Blueprint Writing Circle. 


  1. Thank you Strong Families and Echoing Ida for publishing these reflections. One of the striking things about Kiera's story, from my perspective, is the opportunity it gives us to reflect on the harsh spirit our children battle everyday at the hands of public school educators and administrators. If this is what our best and brightest are dealing with...threats, intimidation, fear tactics, criminalization and squashed intellectual curiosity, then we know students who are gifted differently are up against near impossible odds. I hope the Black community uses this opportunity to consider what our goals are when we send our most vulnerable and defenseless members into such hostile environments.