Is Our Zero Tolerance Culture Behind Kiera Wilmot’s Heavy-Handed Charges?

15 comments
May 3, 2013 ‐ By Charing Ball

kiera wilmot

The case of Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old student at Bartow High School expelled and charged with a felony count for a bottle bomb/unauthorized science experiment, has inspired a number of petitions on Change.org from concerned citizens who are  demanding that the charges be dropped and she be admitted back into school.

Despite what could have transpired around this ill-advised “science experiment” of hers, Wilmot is by most accounts, an above-average teenager, who gets good grades and is generally well-behaved in school. That’s why many folks have expressed outrage over the severity of her charges from the local district attorney. Even her principal, who because of the district’s zero tolerance policy, reported the incident to police, has come to Wilmot’s defense. And as one of the petition creators suggested, Women make up only 20% of computer science jobs, 23% of graduate students in engineering, and only 25% of the STEM workforce. We are not going to resolve the gender gap in science and math fields by punishing girls for pursuing the fields.

I will co-sign that her inquisitive mind should be encouraged – perhaps in more controlled environments – however, I wouldn’t go as far as to christen her the next Marie Curie. By most accounts, she heard about a bottle bomb (also known as a work bomb) from a friend and wanted to try it for herself. She ended up scaring the crap out of a bunch of people, which is not a smart thing to do, especially not after the school shootings and recent bombing in Boston. However, I don’t exactly go around expecting 16 year olds to always do smart things. And that is why I am so happy that there has been public push back in this case. For me, Wilmot’s story gets at the heart of the problem with zero tolerance, which is not only an attitude, but as we see, a firm policy in some towns and school districts.

Ja'Meya Jackson

Ironically, the night before I read about the Wilmot case, I started watching on Neflix Lee Hirsch’s documentary, Bully. This is the controversial documentary about the often unforeseen effects of schoolyard bullying on the lives of young people. The documentary was controversial because it initially received an “R” rating, which meant it couldn’t be shown to young audiences who might need to see it most, but after some public nudging by Harvey Weinstein, the film was re-rated to a more teen-friendly PG-13. I’ve been avoiding this documentary because I just knew that it was going to make me upset. And as suspected, I was right. One of the stories, about 14-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson from Yazoo County, Mississippi, is the one that really got to me. She was an honor role student, who was facing heavy time for brandishing a gun on a school bus. According to Ja’Meya, she decided to get the gun, which belonged to her mother, after growing tired of being picked on by a few students on the school bus. Among her tormentors was a boy, who bragged about how he was not scared to fight girls. The whole incident was caught on the bus camera, and seeing the video and hearing her account provided some context to how this could happen. And yet, with this context, the local district attorney felt that there were “no excuses” for her bringing a gun on a bus, and he felt justified in charging her with 45 felony counts, including 22 felony kidnapping charges.

I turned the film off at that point so I can’t tell you her fate. I was just too angry to even finish watching after listening to the district attorney justify why this level of prosecution was needed against this child. Did she act recklessly? No doubt. Could she have seriously hurt someone and herself? Yes. Are there consequences to be had for her actions? Yuppers. But who says that those consequences have to be jail? And what value does it serve society in throwing an otherwise straight-arrowed child in prison for years? I can’t think of any.

There is a discussion to be had here about how this heavy-handedness towards our children contributes to the school to prison pipeline. Neither Kiera or Ja’Meya fit the stereotype of youth, who most folks would associate with felony crimes. As far as we know, they are not vicious and cruel. They don’t have a bunch of tattoos or baby daddies. They were not beating girls up and then uploading videos of it to WorldStar. They were, for all intents and purposes, what most people would describe as good kids, who deviated off from a pretty good path. Rehabilitation and the proper guidance to show them the error of their ways could probably have more results than a lengthy prison sentence. But that’s if producing well-rounded citizens is the motivation…

I think what is most unnerving about these stories is that I can recall about several incidences from my youth, which could have landed me in the same position as Kiera or Ja’Meya. I would name them but they were pretty boneheaded and by today’s zero tolerance standards, likely criminal. And it wasn’t like I was a bad kid; I just did stupid things at times. I didn’t always think about how my actions would effect other people. And that is at the core of what’s wrong with zero tolerance as a practice. It doesn’t recognize what is an essential part in growing up human; and that is making mistakes – even intentional ones. It provides no room for differences and nuances; that since you have the same outcome as someone else, how you both got there is the same. And that’s not true in any respects in life, and it is certainly not true for teenagers.

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  • FromUR2UB

    The problem that I have with Zero Tolerance policies is that they are completely lacking in compassion. Without trying to understand a child’s motivation and all that precipitated his/her behavior, it’s impossible to correct the behavior. In the cases of these two girls, the policies mandate that school officials nullify the girls’ histories, and define them and the rest of their lives by single events. As far as I know, we haven’t heard Kiera’s explanation for what she did, yet. If she wasn’t being inquisitive and wanting to satisfy scientific curiosity, then could she have done this as an attempt to fit in? Even smart kids sometimes fall prey to wanting acceptance by their peers. Do any us remember how good students are often treated by other kids? I’m guessing kids now are still the way they were when I was a kid, and the way they had been for generations. Some ridicule smart and well behaved kids, trying to “shame” them from their consistently good behavior. Perhaps that pressure got to her in a weak moment. If this is a child who usually behaves and has parents who ensure that she does, suspending her for a few days would probably have taught her a lifetime lesson. Even now, with the publicity this incident has received, the humiliation should be enough to make her regret having done it. Since there were no injuries, it should have been handled by reminding her of the potential harm. Incarceration will permanently derail her. Youthful indiscretion without malice, does not deserve such severe punishment. In the case of Ja’Meya, I know how she got to that point. I was bullied on the bus and at school nearly everyday of my 7th grade year, by a group of girls. In the beginning of the year, we had been friendly with one another. One day I got on the bus, and found that had changed, seemingly overnight. I still don’t know the reason for it. Initially, I ignored them; but that only caused others to join in., then the bullying started becoming physical. I couldn’t fight all of them, and it took me the entire year to figure out that I only needed to beat up the leader. But, before I had gotten to the point, I had considered taking a kitchen knife to school. My mother saw me take the knife, knew why I was taking it, and talked me out it. I’m so glad she was paying attention. If lazy, unconcerned school faculty, staff and school official did their job, they could stop bullying, at least on school grounds. Bus drivers usually do nothing but drive the bus while bullying occurs on their buses. Adults on the school grounds often turn away when they witness or hear instances of bullying. It used to be understood that if a kid fought a bully, and won the fight, the bullying usually ended. Zero Tolerance ensures that a kid can’t even defend himself anymore. Bullies are protected by it, while kids who get fed up and try to defend themselves against it, are punished for getting fed up. Has anyone noticed that school shootings seemed to follow the implementation of Zero Tolerance policies? How much persecution can or should one endure? Should the solution always be to move the bullied child to a new school? How practical is that in every case? I’m in no way advocating school shootings. But, there’s a remote possibility that some cases may have been averted, had school personnel been more proactive in addressing bullying, and not relied upon band-aid policies that actually encourage bullying rather than stop it.

  • Reese

    As somebody who was bullied I have a soft spot in my heart for kids that are being bullied. I tried to commit suicide but I met some amazing people that helped me to build my confidence in myself and I shake my head at my biggest tormentors and where they are in lives now (3 and 4 kids, on welfare, and flipping burgers). Trouble don’t last always and he who laughs last, laughs the longest.

  • Kam

    Miss Kierra’s parents need to do better in monitoring their daughter’s activities. I’m sure she is a bright girl with a lot of potential but her actions could have harmed other people’s bright kids who have a lot of potential. She deserves punishment but an adult grade felony is too much. Community service with burn victims might work for her. As for Miss Ja’Meya that child felt like she was at the end of her rope. I don’t condone her actions but I really understand. I’m glad she went before a decent judge instead of the stereotypical Mississippi judge. I’m so sick of bullies its ridiculous. But I think if parents of the bullied start suing the parents of the bullies and the schools or filing harassment charges against them then maybe (hopefully) they will start taking these things seriously.

    • Reese

      As my grandma says some people are too smart for their own good and this young lady seems like one of them.

  • ThatChick

    We made “bombs” with our teacher in HS! It was fun. A few kids got out of hand with the chemicals and burned each other. They got a suspension and it was over. Kids cant be kids anymore.

    • Kenedy

      No they cannot… because some kids actually want to blow other people up and kill them, that’s the reality

  • woo

    At Ja’Meya’s hearing, the charges against her are dropped. The judge orders her to be hospitalized, but leaves it to the discretion of the doctors about sending her home. “You wasn’t thinking, you made a big mistake,” Ja’Meya’s mom tells her. She starts crying; she wants to go home now. But you know what a huge bullet she’s dodged. This could just as easily have gone the other way. Another judge, along the lines of the sheriff, could have given her a juvenile record.

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  • http://twitter.com/HollyGrove7 Holly Grove

    My mom’s a middle school teacher and a student wrote letters to another teacher telling how these two girls constantly picked on her and that she’s tired and wanted to commit suicide. Her teacher took the letters to the counselor and principal, and guess what? They blew it off and did absolutely nothing. The two bullies are in my mom’s class and my mom said she can’t bare to even look at them knowing how they’re treating this girl. Anyway,after the girl continuously seeked help and her teacher tried reaching out to the principal, a few days later she was jumped by a group of 12 girls after school. The bullies only got a week suspension and so did the victim. Now they’re all back in school and the principal told the girl not to talk to the teacher who was trying to help her. WTF?! The principal who’s supposedly a God-fearing Christian Evangelist even lied to the young lady’s mother saying that she never knew about her daughter being bullied and threatening to take her own life. The worst part about it is that our local newspaper had a picture of the fight(jumping) on the front page and even posted the video on its website. SMH. These schools say the have “no tolerance” for bullying, but they never take it seriously.

    • Sarah

      People need to start taking these schools to court. I make sure as a teacher that I handle the situations in my classroom and report it to the principal and school counselor. I also contact both the victim’s and bully’s parents. I make my attitude known about bullying from day one. I love all children, but I will call you out if you are a weak and insecure person that you have to bully somebody else. It’s about time that all teachers and administrators take a stance against students (and moreso, their parents) about this issue.

  • Trisha_B

    What kiera did was VERY dumb. Its now known it wasn’t a school project, but her purposely making a bomb w/ chemicals that are dangerous.Why didnt Kiera do her lil bomb “experiment” at home? To much craziness are going on in public schools for her to even think that would be ok & she wouldn’t be punished. Im sure everyone was terrified when it went off & panicked. If she was that bright of a student, she clearly has sense, & should have known not to do what she did especially not on school property. Would we be like its ok if one of her classmates got hurt? No. I do think the felony, being charged as an adult is a bit much. I think suspension & community service would be fitting
    As for the 2nd lil girl. I can’t stand bullys. They dont get handled properly, & its always the victims who get in trouble when the finally stand up for themself. Bringing the gun was not the right thing to do but she probably felt that was her last option after her pleads fell on deafs ears. Those charges are excessive.

    We’ve all done dumb ish as teens, but times have changed. Kids are going crazy, people are going crazy. I was just in high school 5 years ago & there werent stories out every other month of someone shooting up schools or blowing things up. Schools have to protect their students. Which means they have to be better safe than sorry. They are gonna handle right now then ask questions later. There are plenty of smart, educated people who have committed crimes so that argument really doesnt fly w/ me. There is a difference in making a mistake vs putting people in harms way. Kiera put people in harms way, the other girl made a mistake. You wanna do stupid stuff, do it at home away from other people kids.

    • MLS2698

      Straight “A” students often have more book sense than common sense. Sorry

  • iT3ach

    My school took our 7th and 8th grade students to see “Bully” at the theater when it was first released…it was AWESOME and heartbreaking at the same time. Ja’Meya was actually released and is working to rebuild her reputation. While I’m glad my students had the opportunity to view the film, I don’t think it had the impact that the faculty, including myself, was hoping for. In the end, bullying is real. It pains me to say but, the education system is severely disproportionate in the way in which it handles these situations. Prime example…one of my students made a bomb threat (365 day suspension), lit paper on fire in health class (10 day suspension), and threatened to SLAP ME (10 day suspension). At the end of the day…I’m going to have to teach this child in the next week…meanwhile children like Kiera Wilmot are being expelled. I just don’t get it. I LOVE what I do…but this hurts me…

    • MLS2698

      Damn! Teachers should get combat pay!