Florida: Teen Faces Felony Charges for Science Experiment

by Walter Olson on May 1, 2013

“No one was hurt. There’s no sign that [Kiera] Wilmot was up to something malevolent. The kid’s own principal [at Bartow High School] thinks this wasn’t anything more than an experiment, and he says she didn’t try to cover up what she had done. What punishment did you think she received? A stern talking-to? A day or two of after-school detention? Maybe she’ll have to help clean up the lab for a week? Nope. The budding chemist has been kicked out of school and charged with a couple of felonies.” [Jesse Walker]

More: “Scientists Back Kiera Wilmot by Tweeting About All the Stuff They’ve Blown Up” [Tim Elfrink, Miami New Times] Similarly: Ashutosh Jogalekar, Scientific American.

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Update: charges dropped against Kiera Wilmot - Overlawyered
05.18.13 at 9:30 am

{ 14 comments }

1 William 05.01.13 at 11:42 am

All children throughout history have reached a point in their growth when they believe adults are stupid and unfair. Sadly, the current generation will not grow out of it, because they happen to be right.

2 Hugo S. Cunningham 05.01.13 at 12:17 pm

We hear endlessly about dangers from “child abusers,” but some of the most destructive ones are school administrators given a free pass by hysteria-prone media for “zero tolerance” policies.

3 ras 05.01.13 at 12:56 pm

While I enjoy a good tsk-tsk’ing of officials as much as anyone, in this case it might not be warranted. This was no “mentos & soda pop” bomb exploded in a field; it sounds more like a drano/tinfoil bomb specifically designed and placed where another student could/would have been seriously and intentionally injured. I would be happy if it turns out not be be so, but it sounds like it.

Lotta assumptions in the above, of course, both in the type of bomb, as well as in the intent (as can be inferred by her timing/placement of it). But if she was seriously trying to maim/disfigure other students just for giggles, then the officials in this case would be correct to deal with her harshly.

There’s more on these types of bombs at http://www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/bottlebomb.asp

More details needed before we can know anything for certain.

4 David Eggers 05.01.13 at 1:21 pm

Do the prosecutors actually have to prove that the device was capable of causing harm? The top popped off of a water bottle. Setting an empty water bottle on the ground and jumping on it would have done the same thing.

5 E-Bell 05.01.13 at 1:50 pm

ras, it could have been any number of common substances that put out a bunch of gas when mixed. When I was a kid, we used to do it with dry ice and water.

Regardless, it seems to me that the child is merely guilty of poor judgment and there was no malicious intent. Should it be a crime (felony, to be tried as an adult) to be young and curious?

Instead of expulsion and prison, why not a suspension and (gasp) get a teacher to help her learn about chemistry in a safe environment? This is not the kind of person who needs to be severely punished – this is the type of person whose curiosity about the world around her needs to be encouraged.

6 John Burgess 05.01.13 at 2:28 pm

I can only thank God I was born when and were I was. Had I been a child now, it looks like I’d be serving several consecutive life sentences as a result of my curiosity.

.22 cal zip guns and linoleum zip guns… check
Rockets fueled with any number of now-illegal substances… check
Pipe bombs… check
Thermite… check
Napalm… check

I guess I should thank God I hit puberty and discovered girls, too, else I could well have stayed a Chem nerd. And gone to prison.

7 ps 05.01.13 at 4:11 pm

maybe every child should be made to serve 3 – 5 in prison just to cover any misdeeds they may or may not have done. It would sure free up the courts.

8 phunctor 05.01.13 at 6:01 pm

@JohnBurgess
What no fulminate? No nitro? Wuss.
It’s a miracle I can count to ten.
And I’d still be doing hard time… Good times, good times.

9 ras 05.01.13 at 6:28 pm

e-bell,

“it could have been any number of common substances that put out a bunch of gas when mixed”

I hope it was something innocuous, but when I dug into the story and the comments of those who knew the girl … I suspect it may have been more a case of her sneaking into the lab, putting together a deliberately dangerous bomb, then setting it outside where another student would be seriously injured. This is not at all the same thing as playing “boom” with dry ice just for fun.

As I said earlier, I hope I’m wrong and that all the caustic “stop overreacting, damn pantywaist bureaucrats” commenters are right. But I suspect not. The Snopes link (same one I gave above) gives a reasonable overview.

10 John Burgess 05.01.13 at 7:08 pm

@Phunctor: Those had to wait for high school so I could get my hands on the nitric acid from the lab. The drug store wouldn’t sell it. The mercury was easy enough to get — a friend’s father was a dentist. Stink bombs required the use of a hood.

11 gitarcarver 05.01.13 at 9:59 pm

According to the police report found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/138927259/Wilmot-Arrest

the girl put stripes of aluminum foil a toilet bowl cleaner called “The Works” in a water bottle.

The reaction eventually caused the water bottle to explode.

You can see a video of a similar reaction here: http://youtu.be/6ufh1JXNHr4

She didn’t run away, she owned up to the incident, no one was hurt, the principal doesn’t think there was any intent to harm someone. It appears this was a non-school related “experiment.” So why are we charging this otherwise good kid with a felony? What purpose will that serve?

On the other hand, the guy in this story:

http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20130430/CRIME/304300019/Police-Satellite-Beach-man-experimenting-small-explosives?nclick_check=1

seems to have a more nefarious intent.

12 No Name Guy 05.02.13 at 12:52 pm

Git – yup, that one produces hydrogen. In fact, I did this experiment IN school, in 5th grade. Of course, it was by the book with the teacher. Fun thing that would never happen today -we burnt off the gas as it evolved, in the class room (had a glass tube through the stopper in the flask where the reaction was going on. no oxygen in there, so no risk of explosion).

Oh, and my personal one from science as a kid – take an old VW Bug transmission, bash up the case into pieces with a sledge hammer. Take a piece to the grinding wheel, and grind away. Collect resultant magnesium dust. But, what ever you do, never, EVER do what my buddy did – the vice grips he was holding the piece with hit the grinding wheel, sending sparks into the dust being collected in a cup at the outlet, igniting it. No problem – I was going to take the cup of “just starting to burn” magnesium powder outside and set it down in a safe spot to let it burn out. Buddy, in his infinite wisdom, decides to blow out the small, just starting to spread flame. Can you say the biggest flash bulb / soft explosion you’ve ever seen? We stagger outside, not able to see from the flash blindness. Things recovered in a minute or two with no permanent damage.

13 MF 05.02.13 at 5:53 pm

Ah… memories of chemistry class and fun with nitrogen triiodide. Really easy to make and makes a big bang, plus it earned me extra credit and brought me back up to an ‘A’ grade. :-)

14 labman57 05.04.13 at 11:06 am

Zero tolerance policies are the result of administrators opting for an easy fix so that they no longer are required to use judgement and common sense and evaluate each situation on its merits. Similar absurd policies have previously resulted in students being suspended for bringing Midol or Tylenol (no drugs!) or plastic knives to cut up lunch meat (no weapons!) to school.

Should she have been punished? Most definitely.

The danger with these “Works” bombs is the potential for outward spray of the caustic solution during the blast, injuring anyone foolish enough to be standing too close to the bottle when the rising internal pressure blows the bottle open. Someone could have been injured. It clearly was a foolish thing to do.

However, the punishment should fit the “crime”. School suspension would seem far more appropriate that expulsion, and since there was clearly no maliciousness involved in her “experiment”, and since no one was actually injured, filing criminal charges is way over the top.

But then, we’re dealing with Florida and an African American “offender”. Nuf said.

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