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

May 3, 2013  |  

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 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.

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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