It all started with a loud pop and a little smoke. A week later, it blew up the internet.
Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old from Bartow, a small town east of Tampa, was expelled from school and — amazingly — arrested on two felony charges after a science experiment went wrong. Other than the local paper and New Times' Riptide blog, hardly anyone noticed. But then Reddit caught on to the story. Soon, advocates of both racial justice and science education were trumpeting Wilmot's cause, and everyone from Slate to the Guardian had picked up her tale.
"Already, students like Kiera are behind the curve in preparation for 21st-century jobs in science," biologist DNLee wrote in a powerful Scientific American column. "Her expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color: Don't try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!"
Kiera Wilmot's Story Blows Up, but Where's the Herald?
Strangely, one place still hasn't picked up on Kiera's tale, even after more than a thousand comments on Riptide: the Miami Herald. It's an echo of the Trayvon Martin killing last year, which the daily also underplayed until online outrage made the unarmed teen's death a flash point.
Like Trayvon's tale, Kiera's story still has many unanswered questions. This much is clear: Wilmot's trouble began April 22, when the assistant principal at Bartow High heard a small explosion. When he ventured outside, he found the teen near a gazebo on campus next to a plastic bottle. Wilmot admitted she'd mixed toilet bowl cleaner with aluminum foil — a "science fair experiment" her friend had suggested, she said.
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Wilmot, a good student with a clean record, was immediately expelled for having a "bomb" on campus. What's more, a local prosecutor named Tammy Glotfelty OK'ed police to arrest the girl on felony charges of possession of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device — even though her principal admitted she wasn't trying to hurt anyone and had made a "bad choice."
Contacted Friday, a spokeswoman from the Polk County State Attorney's Office declined to comment on whether Wilmot's charges would be pursued, saying the case was "under investigation." A school board flack tells Riptide that Wilmot's expulsion should send a message to kids that "there are consequences to their actions."
Once Reddit picked up on the story last week, it quickly touched a nerve. Advocates such as DNLee argued Wilmot should face a small punishment but be encouraged to continue her experimenting. Hundreds of scientists began tweeting with a #KieraWilmot hashtag about everything they'd blown up in the name of science. A Change.org petition to drop the charges against her has nabbed more than 170,000 signatures.
As DNLee writes: "Science is not clean. It is very messy and it is riddled with mistakes and mishaps." So, obviously, are the courts and Florida's school system.