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Earlier this week, the well-oiled school-to-prison pipeline once again moved swiftly and fiercely to criminalize kids. This time, the pipeline delivered 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot to the open arms of a Florida Assistant State Attorney (ASA).
Wilmot, a student at Bartow High School in Polk County, Florida, mixed together household chemicals on school grounds to see what might happen. For this youthful experiment, she found herself arrested and charged as an adult when the concoction caused a minor explosion. The only casualty at the scene of this supposed crime? A plastic bottle.
Wilmot is regarded as an excellent student and has "never been in trouble, ever," according to her principal Ron Pritchard. At the urging of a fellow classmate, she combined toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in an 8-ounce bottle. To her surprise, the top popped off and the concoction began to smoke, followed by a small explosion. Responding to a call by the assistant principal who observed the incident, a school resource officer took Wilmot into custody and delivered her to the ASA. The ASA charged Wilmot with two felonies and filed her case in adult court. Wilmot, who cooperated completely with both the assistant principal and the officer, said she did not mean to harm or frighten anyone. Nonetheless, the school automatically expelled her for violating the conduct code, forcing Wilmot to complete her high school education through an expulsion program.
Following the charges, the Polk County School District released a statement unequivocally defending the choice to expel Wilmot: "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." Thanks to the school's zero-tolerance approach, what it could have treated as a minor mishap deserving of stern but reasonable punishment has devolved into an expulsion and criminal offense that could both haunt Wilmot for the rest of her life.
According the Florida department of juvenile justice, the state's counties average ten school-related delinquency arrests per 1,000 students per year. Polk County, Florida, where Wilmot is a student, arrests more than two times the average number of students—21 per 1,000 each year—making the county one of the state's most dramatic examples of the school-to-prison pipeline in action. The county's choice to rely on police for discipline means kids are far more likely to be arrested for minor offenses and funneled into the criminal justice system. This is exactly what happened to Wilmot.
After being contacted by the school resource officer, Assistant State Attorney Tammy Glotfelty advised that Wilmot be charged with "possessing or discharging weapons or firearms on school property" and "making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device," both felonies under Florida law. The choice to levy these charges on Wilmot, and to try her as an adult, were entirely Glotfelty's—she was not bound by Florida law to dole out these severe charges. Still, she exercised her prosecutorial discretion to the fullest extent and, in so doing, senselessly endangered the promising future of a sixteen-year old child.
The confluence of the school's insistence on a zero-tolerance interpretation of their code of conduct and Glotfelty's decision to criminalize Wilmot for a harmless mistake powerfully illustrates the absurdity of these inflexible approaches to school discipline. Treating Wilmot's accidental mini-explosion as a criminal offense is an outrageous response to what was simply the product of youthful experimentation. All children make mistakes born of curiosity or peer pressure, and that is exactly what happened here. To needlessly treat these kids as criminal is not only foolish and unnecessary—it's a sure path to reinforcing the school to prison pipeline.