Just two years ago, at age 16, Florida honors student Kiera Wilmot was expelled, arrested, and booked on two felony charges after a school science experiment went awry.
"She just wanted to see what happened to those chemicals in the bottle," one teen told a local news station in the wake of the incident in 2013. "Now, look what happened."
"A young African-American woman, an aspiring scientist, made an error in an experiment that landed her in handcuffs. This was drastic and harsh, the kind of discipline that Black girls and teens face every day due to a rush to criminalize them."
—Judith Browne Dianis, Advancement Project
On Monday night, Kiera joined "Clock Kid" Ahmed Mohamed and about 300 other youths for the White House Astronomy Night, aimed at promoting careers in science and innovation. And on Tuesday, Kiera, her mother Marie, and her sister Kayla were in the nation's capitol to draw attention to how students of color are unfairly criminalized and pushed out of schools.
Civil rights advocates say that stories like Kiera's and Ahmed's are not atypical.
But while their experiences have drawn widespread attention, "the plight of other students caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline often goes unnoticed and under-reported," according to the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Advancement Project, which promotes racial justice through legal and grassroots tactics. In fact, citing statistics from the African American Policy Forum, the Advancement Project notes that "such is disproportionately the case with Black girls, who are suspended from school six times more often than their white counterparts around the nation."
"Kiera's experience is indicative of a larger school discipline crisis," said Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis at a press conference on Tuesday.
"While every child should have the opportunity to succeed, children of color are often punished unnecessarily," Dianis said. "A young African-American woman, an aspiring scientist, made an error in an experiment that landed her in handcuffs. This was drastic and harsh, the kind of discipline that Black girls and teens face every day due to a rush to criminalize them. Too often the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on girls of color is swept under the rug, but Kiera's story, like so many others, shows girls face life-changing consequences too."
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As the Washington Post reported, President Barack Obama didn’t mention either Kiera or Ahmed by name in his remarks at Monday's event. "But he said adults need to be careful to nurture scientific creativity — not snuff it out," noted Post reporter Emma Brown.
"We need teachers to light a spark of curiosity in young minds," Obama told the young scientists along with their parents and teachers on the South Lawn. "We have to watch for, and cultivate, and encourage...glimmers of curiosity and possibility," he added, "and not suppress them, not squelch them—because not only are the young people’s futures at stake, but our own is at stake."
Thena Robinson Mock, project director for the Advancement Project's Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track campaign, went further, saying: "We should be encouraging young scientists like Ahmed and Kiera, not criminalizing them because of race."
After all, while Kiera was able to graduate—once her mother spent thousands on legal fees—and is now working toward a mechanical engineering degree at Florida Polytechnic University, many young people arrested in schools have more traumatic outcomes, as they are less likely to graduate from high school, find good jobs, enroll in college, or enlist in the military.
"I applaud the White House for not only recognizing Ahmed’s brilliance," Mock said, "but highlighting the plight of black girls through Kiera Wilmot."
Learn more about the Wilmot family and the school-to-prison pipeline in the short video below: