The arrest of a 16-year-old high school student from Bartow after an ordinary science project has made national news this week. Considering our nation's urgency to promote interest in the so-called STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and math) among the nation's youth, the Polk County Public School District's decision to expel the girl over a harmless science project has engendered nationwide outrage. When it was followed up by the girl's arrest on two felony weapons offenses, people were stunned.
The story involves a 16-year-old girl who had never been in trouble with school officials or the law until recently, when her school science project didn't go as expected. She wasn't fooling around or attempting to break the law, however, and she did apparently take safety precautions.
Around 7:00 a.m. on Monday, April 29, the girl went outside on school property and mixed up some household chemicals in an 8-ounce water bottle. She expected the combined chemicals to create smoke. Instead, the reaction caused the plastic top of the water bottle to pop off -- or, as it has been more dramatically put, the reaction caused a small explosion -- along with the expected smoke. No one was hurt.
She didn't run away, but waited for a school resource officer to appear, and then told the complete truth to the officer and the principal.
What most people would expect to happen next would be for her science teacher to explain how the project went wrong, and probably to remind her about the potential hazards of mixing chemicals -- a warning she has now surely internalized in a basically harmless snafu. It's not at all clear why any additional consequences were necessary.
Instead, she was expelled from school, arrested and charged with felony possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and felony discharging a destructive device. She will be tried as an adult. If convicted, she faces up to 5 years in prison on the destructive device charge and up to 15 years for the weapon on school property charge.
Even the principal of her school is horrified at the felony weapons charges and potentially life-destroying prison sentence she faces. Nevertheless, the school seems reluctant to admit the girl did nothing wrong.
"We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions," the school district said in a statement. "We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff."
What about the safety and future of an innocent 16-year-old who was interested enough in science to try? Her "offense" was no more than that of any scientist who has tried and failed, and her "destructive device" was no more than a relatively harmless, controlled experience in a safe, school setting.
Source: Reason.com, "Zero Tolerance Watch: Teen Faces Felony Charges for Science Experiment," Jesse Walker, May 1, 2013