Kiera Wilmot
Courtesy of the Wilmot family

Kiera Wilmot still dreams of being an engineer, although having two felony charges and an arrest record at 16 has made that difficult.  

Kiera, now 17, is still trying to get back into a routine of normalcy, doing the things normal teens do, starting with graduating. She and her older twin sister, Kayla, graduated from Bartow High School in Florida on June 3, and both are looking forward to the bright future that was threatened last year.

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By way of refresher, Kiera is the whiz kid who was arrested at her school in April 2013 after a science-project idea gone wrong, in which she mixed toilet-bowl cleaner and tinfoil in a water bottle to see what would happen. She had brought the project to the school to have it approved by her science teacher, who had told the class to bring ideas for the science fair. When she attempted a demonstration for her peers, there was a “pop” from the bottle as the cap blew off, followed by some billowing smoke.

No one was hurt, no property was damaged, and yet her experiment got her arrested by Bartow police for two felonies: “possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property and making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device,” according to the incident report.

Kiera, who remembers that day in startling detail and chronology, sounded subdued as she relived it with The Root. “It wasn’t for a while that I realized what was happening,” the Florida native said, explaining her interaction with school officials after the incident. She thought that the situation was over after the original questioning. It wasn’t until later, when the dean of discipline removed her from classes, that the weight of what was happening really began to hit her.

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“[The resource officer] said, ‘You know, this could get you charged,’ and he said, ‘Actually it will get you charged.’ [He told me] that I’m going to be recommended for expulsion. I was shocked and I was thinking, ‘What’s my mom going to do with me?’” she said. “He said, ‘You’re going to be arrested today,’ and I started crying—like, I hid my face in my backpack and everything.”

Luckily, Kiera was never held for any significant time, but the implications from the incident didn’t disappear so quickly.

A Struggle to Graduate

With tensions still high on her return to Bartow High after a 10-day suspension, it was recommended at that point that she not finish the remainder of her junior year, even though there were only five weeks left. To be sure that she could keep up academically, she was sent to an alternative school with children who had discipline problems for the remainder of the school year. She would be allowed to return to Bartow High, and attend classes with her sister again, for her senior year.

Her sister, Kayla, told The Root how lonely it was at Bartow High without Kiera and how harsh people were after the incident. The girls were often mistaken for each other, so Kayla was called a terrorist (something Kiera also had to deal with). Sometimes, even knowing that Kayla was not Kiera, peers would still taunt the older twin, saying that they “deserved what they got” and “should be in jail.”

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“They made me not want to go to school at that time. Everything was going on; it was just way too much stress,” Kiera said about her eventual return to Bartow High. “Some people are still a little mean about it. Some have forgotten about it. I’m hoping everybody forgets about it.”

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That’s not the only impact the incident has had on her. During her suspension, the A and B student saw her grades drop to D’s and F’s. Although she managed to bring them back up to par at the alternative school, she was still denied the right to graduate with honors like her sister because of the circumstances: her troubles at the school, the drop in her grades one semester, and the fact that she broke her attendance at the school to attend the alternative school.

The family didn’t have the strength left to fight another fight—they were already tired from the legal battles they’d fought and were just happy to see her walk across the stage.

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“I was glad that they let me graduate,” Kiera said. “I did have a dream one night that … I had all my [graduation gear] on and then they stopped me and said, ‘Oh, by the way, we were [going] through everybody’s records and you still have two felony charges, so you can’t walk.’ … I was getting a little scared, but I’m glad that it’s all done now.”

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“I felt like skipping upside down, like, so happy you’d be on the ceiling skipping in circles,” Kayla said, recalling when she learned that her twin would graduate with her after all. “I was ecstatic. I almost felt like it wasn’t true, that they were going to do something. … It felt like it was too good to be true.”

A “School Discipline Crisis”

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On top of everything else, although Kiera was never officially charged by the state attorney, let alone convicted, the arrest record is still there weighing her down. Her mother, Marie Wilmot, is working tirelessly to make it disappear, but it could take years, depending on how legal proceedings turn out, before the record is scrubbed clean.

“To clarify, these are sort of what they call uncharted territories, so based on everything the attorney has read and understood and conveyed to us … on clearing felony charges, you’d have to go through a five-year period and kind of keep your nose clean [to get the charges cleared],” Marie Wilmot said.

“Usually when they say we can expunge one [felony], it’s after you’ve been convicted or officially charged,” she continued. “The Bartow Police Department arrested her with these two felony charges, but the state attorney office did not file formal charges, so she wasn’t convicted of anything. So we’re not really sure. Records need to be cleared, yes. But we’re not really sure how the law is interpreted at this point,” the 50-year-old single mother added.

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The Advancement Project, which describes itself as a multiracial civil rights organization, is working with the Wilmot family to tell Kiera’s story and hopes to change the narrative. The organization is using Kiera’s case as an example of the stark racial disparity evident in the way students are punished. The organization put a video on YouTube detailing these harsh disciplinary “zero tolerance” policies and how they affect students of color.

“Kiera’s experience is indicative of a larger school discipline crisis,” Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said in a release. “While every child should have the opportunity to succeed, children, especially children of color, are punished more frequently and more harshly than other students for the same offenses.”

Children of color are punished more frequently and more harshly than other students for the same offenses.

With two felonies on her record, Kiera was forced to answer yes when asked on college applications if she has ever been arrested, charged or convicted of a felony. That prompted some prospective schools to ask for a statement of explanation. There is no way to know if her account of her arrest somehow stopped her from getting into other universities.

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Still, arrest record or not, one school saw her potential, and Kiera is staying focused on her future. The twins will be going to college close to home, both opting to be in the first class of Florida’s first STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)-focused university, the Florida Polytechnic University, which is still being built but is scheduled to be completed in late June or early July. Kiera wants to study mechanical and robotic engineering, while Kayla is going for computer and gaming design, although at some point she hopes to transition into audio engineering.

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As for the more immediate future, the twins have a busy summer ahead as they prep for their freshman year at college, with a robotics workshop just around the corner. And then there’s their 18th birthday in July.

“They graduated, they will be turning 18 and going into this brand-new college … that everybody’s looking forward to,” their mother ticked off happily. “2014 seems like our year. I mean, we had an awful 2013, but everything’s looking up in 2014.”

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Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.