On April 23, 2013, Kiera Wilmot conducted a volcano experiment in her Polk County high-school hallway. The 16-year-old junior, who was working on the project for her science class, watched as a lid popped off and smoke seeped out. No one was hurt and no property was damaged in the experiment.
But Wilmot's project came just eight days after the Boston Marathon bombing, and school officials sternly led her into the principal’s office. She was told she had made a bomb and was handcuffed and escorted to a juvenile detention center. She was charged with two felonies: possession of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device.
“I remember I was in shock and just started crying,” Wilmot recalls. “I was called a terrorist, and people tell me that I’m on the no-fly list even to this day.”
Earlier this month, Wilmot was shocked when she heard that another high-school student was arrested after making a clock that he showed to his teacher. Like Wilmot, 14-year-old freshman Ahmed Mohamed had taken to school a science project that school officials mistook as a bomb. Ahmed was handcuffed and arrested after he built a digital clock from a pencil case.
The news was disappointing to Wilmot. She had hoped that after her story received international coverage, no other student would have to experience what she endured. “I know exactly what he’s going through,” Wilmot says. “It’s scary, but he has a lot of support. He is two years younger than I was when that happened, so he needs it, and I’m glad everyone is supporting him. But I wish I had all the support that Ahmed has.”
Wilmot says felony charges against her were dropped, but she still had to complete 20 hours of community service, undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and finish her junior year at an alternative school.
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She returned the next school year, but students would gossip behind her back. “A few said, ‘Next time you blow up the school, make sure you tell me not to be there first,’” Wilmot says. “I felt pretty awkward.”
Whereas Ahmed has received offers to visit Harvard and MIT, applying to college was tense for Wilmot. On every application, she had to tick the box informing schools that she had been arrested, and retell her story. “It really scared me. I thought no school was going to take me,” she says.
Now, Wilmot studies mechanical engineering at Florida Polytechnic University in Central Florida. She’s just a sophomore but hopes to join the U.S. Air Force and one day work for NASA — the same dream as Ahmed. President Obama has invited Ahmed to attend the White House Astronomy Night on October 19, an evening when students meet with leaders in science to promote careers in the field.
“No one has reached out to me yet,” she says. “I would love to attend Astronomy Night.”