High school, what a time! What was your favorite part? Passing notes? Giggling at handsome fellows and dames? Causing a small explosion in science class, being taken into police custody, and getting sent to the slammer? Wait, what the hell?
That’s what happened last week to 16 year-old Kiera Wilmot, budding science enthusiast and student at Bartow High School in Bartow, Florida. Kiera accidentally caused a minor blast when she mixed together some common household chemicals in a soda bottle at school. Luckily, there were no injuries and no damage was done. Kiera, who apparently has a stellar disciplinary record, said it was a mistake and that she was “shocked” by the explosive reaction. The school seemed to be on board with Kiera’s version of events at first, describing her behavior as a “bad choice.”
But instead of being sent to detention to make one of those cool origami fortune-teller thingies, Kiera was arrested by a school resource officer and sent to a “juvenile assessment center.” After her arrest, the school changed its tune, saying that Kiera’s behavior was a “serious breach of conduct” and that it would not “compromise the safety and security of our students and staff.” Kiera was expelled from school and will now need to complete her high school diploma through a special “expulsion program.” Just because this isn’t already the worst goddamn thing you’ve ever heard, Kiera was then charged with possession and discharge of a weapon on school grounds and with discharging a destructive device. She will now be tried as anadult for fucking up a science experiment. I’m sorry, I thought we were supposed to be encouraging young women to enter STEM fields??
Part of being in high school—part of learning how to be a functioning adult—is making embarrassing mistakes and learning from them. Kids ought to have the freedom to be dum-dums without the fear of police intervention. I don’t know about you guys, but I certainly don’t reflect on my own high school experience and think, “If only I had been forced to live under a constant threat of arrest for being an idiot and/or being bad at science!” (I would have gotten life on both counts, for the record. And that girl who drunkenly barfed in the prom photo would have been sent to the stocks.) Schools that rely on school resource officers, or SROs, for basic disciplinary functions have created a “school-to-prison pipeline” that punishes kids for being kids.
SROs have become a more and more common sight in school hallways. As of December 2012, there were about 30,000 SROs stationed in schools across the country. But after the Sandy Hook shooting, legislators are looking to increase the number of SROs under the guise of improving “school safety.” Earlier this week, the governor of Indiana signed a bill that would set aside $10 million dollars for public schools to hire more SROs. State legislatures across the country are considering similar laws, and even the White House is on board with placing more SROs in schools.
Do SROs actually improve school security? Well, when SROs aren’t busy accidentally discharging their firearms in the schools they’re supposed to be protecting or failing to prevent the massacre at Columbine, they’re roaming around busting kids for disrupting class or for dropping birthday cake in the cafeteria. For safety! Okay, so maybe SROs aren’t preventing any major incidents of violence, but they are arresting loads of teenagers. There is a considerable correlation between the presence of SROs and the number of juvenile arrests in the schools where they’re placed. Kids are now getting arrested for things that used to end up in the principal’s office—nonviolentoffenses like hallway scraps, skipping class, or swearing. Um, success?
And, surprise! Black, Hispanic, and disabled students are taken into custody or ticketed by SROs at a disproportionately high rate. So, teens like Kiera may not be learning much about science, but they’re learning tons about power, privilege, and institutionalized racism. At one school district in Texas, black students are cited by SROs four times more frequently than white students. Citations can result in fines, community service, and probation. Arrests, of course, can lead to incarceration and a criminal record. A juvenile with a criminal record can be lawfully discriminated against in hiring, can be expelled from school, and can be evicted from public housing. But I’m sure the students at Bartow High School and the fine citizens of Bartow, Florida finally got a good night’s sleep knowing that Kiera “Dr. Claw” Wilmot was safely behind bars, facing seriously adult consequences for a youthful mistake.
Since news of Wilmot’s arrest, scientists on Twitter have supported her by posting their own boneheaded science mistakes with the hashtag #KieraWilmot—a beautiful show of solidarity for a young woman who needs all the support she can get. But Kiera’s not the only young black person who has found herself on the wrong side of an SRO. Rather than improving student safety, SROs are introducing young people (especially young people who are not white) to the harsh realities of the American justice system by criminalizing normal teenaged behavior. Instead of forcing kids Kiera through an unforgiving system, we should be sending them back to science class.
Meagan Hatcher-Mays is an unemployed graduate of Washington University Law School in Saint Louis. She does a significant amount of yelling on Twitter.