Girl who was arrested for making a tin-foil volcano tells her story

On May 1, Kiera Wilmot, a Florida high school student, was arrested for mixing toilet bowl cleaner with tin foil, causing a small, harmless explosion. Though she had a spotless school record, she was expelled and charged with a felony as an adult -- a harsh penalty widely ascribed to institutional racism (Wilmot is black). On May 16, thanks to Wilmot's bravery, a crowdfunded project by former NASA engineer Homer Hickam, and the ACLU, the charges against Wilmot were dropped and Wilmot and her twin sister were awarded a full bursary to the Advanced Space Academy program at the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala..

Now, Wilmot has written a must-read editorial for the ACLU on her experience with zero-tolerance, detailing the awful treatment she received and the thoughtless way in which the gears of the a discipline-obsessed educational system grind up its own students:

The principal and dean of discipline came over and asked me to tell them what happened. I was kind of scared, but I thought they'd understand it was an accident. Before that, I've never gotten in trouble this year other than a dress code violation because my skirt was two inches too short. I told him it was my science experiment. In my third period class I was called up to discipline. I wrote a statement to the dean of discipline explaining what had happened. Afterward I was told to sit on the resource officer's office. They told me I made a bomb on school property, and police possibly have the right to arrest me. I didn't know what they classified as a bomb. I was worried I accidently made a bomb. I was really hurt and scared. I was crying.

They didn't read me any rights. They arrested me after sitting in the office for a couple minutes. They handcuffed me. It cut my wrist, and really hurt sitting on my hands behind my back.

They took me to a juvenile assessment center. I was sitting in this room with no clock so it felt like years of me sitting there. When my mom came, she didn't say anything. She just had this really disappointed look, and told me I lost privileges. But she's really been supportive of me. I don't know what would have happened if I didn't have my mom. I would have dug a hole and sat there for the rest of my life.

I don't think police should have been involved because I'm a good student for one. And two, it was a big deal, but it wasn't like people were hurt and the school was in shatters. I maybe should have gotten 10 days suspension or a work detail where on Saturday you wake up early and pick up trash around the school.

An Unexpected Reaction: Why a Science Experiment Gone Bad Doesn't Make Me a Criminal (via The Mary Sue)


  1. The school she’s at now is not challenging; she notes that there’s no German, and there’s no orchestra.

    Dammit!  This is the kind of student attitude we want to foster!  Instead, we label them as terrorists and kick them out of school.


      1. Nothing to do with liberal/conservative, it’s authoritarianism that comes from both the left and the right. It doesn’t work without majority support for this b.s..

        1. Neoliberalism is a stain, as is conservatism.  Institutionalized racism, also. 

          1. Go read my comment again, and report back to the class, please. 

            Neoliberalism has nothing to do with conservatives who also helped push zero tolerance school politices (authoritarianism) for various reasons. It only has to do with the liberals who support such policies. Such support comes from both sides.

            Both sides are to blame. You can understand that, or you can continue the pathetic left-right pep rally tribalism that has pushed all politics into false dichotomies, granting us two corrupt politicians in every election. 

            The choice is yours.

      2. Neolibs aren’t the only “THINK OF THE CHILDREN” forces at work in the US. People who ramble on about “the nanny state” do it just as often as the Clintons/Gores.

        1. Outside of the US “neoliberals”  refers to what we refer to as “neocons.”

    1. She made a dangerous device that could have blinded other children.  The reaction causes the lye in the drain cleaner to heat quickly and burst the bottle, which in turn will cause it to spray. Lye causes horrific chemical burns to flesh.  She knew how to make this device, but didn’t know what it would do?   This is NOT the type of student attitude you should want to foster.

      1.  So expel her?  And arrest her? A good student, who everyone agrees wasn’t out to cause damage, and indeed did no damage.  But you think it was appropriate to handcuff her, expel her, and put her in jail?

        Yours is not the type of HUMAN attitude anyone should want to foster.


      2. Maybe if the school had a good science program she would have known better.  Don’t fault a child for wanting to learn MORE than her school is teaching her.

    2. This stunt could quite easily blinded someone.  The bottle bursts spraying lye (Sodium Hydroxide) in an impossible to predict spray.  Drain cleaner works by chemically burning stuff in your sink, and in your eyes it can easily result in blindness. 

    3.  Rob, this what the majority of American parents (including many of those posting their outrage here at BoingBoing) are voting for.  Special school zones, which have morphed into something indistinguishable from a maximum security penitentiary,  are incredibly popular – as are tough-on-crime politicians.  The fundamental driver seems to be the belief that my children won’t get into trouble, or if they do people will understand that my children aren’t really like that, so they won’t get treated like those hoodlums.

      Sadly, incidents like this confirm the beliefs of many of these people – it’s OK because now she goes to Space Camp.  See, no good kids will be caught up in the gears because Dr. Hickam will rescue them.

      Another thing that’s happening is that all the schools are being air-conditioned, which is sad, unhealthy and wasteful.  But if you insist that all doors and windows must be locked at all times, it’s necessary.

      I’ll bet that over 50% of those posting here either don’t vote at all or else have voted for people who strongly support “zero tolerance”.  Because it’s what American is overwhelmingly asking for.

        1. Better check the numbers first.  When I stood up at a school meeting and pointed out that Sandy Hook had locked doors and zero tolerance and that didn’t save anyone, the few people that had any tolerance (much less sympathy, or agreement) for my point of view were all teachers.  I was polite and reasoned in my discourse, so nobody was impolite to me, but several parents said that if the doors were unlocked they would move their children elsewhere, and there was huge support for armed cops in the schools despite real-world data showing this is a horrible idea.

          Internet blowhards mostly don’t vote, so don’t expect any help there.  As Barack Obama’s website manager has pointed out, the Internet is useful for coordinating real-world actions (like Obama door-to-door campaigns) but on-line statements and social media “likes” do not translate to actual votes.

    1. Could also be where *you* live, in fact, could be any of us; given the right circumstances.

    2. This happened in AnnArboras well. according to THIS
      “The homeowner told Mansell she noticed the bottle and planned to move it when she got her morning paper. “There was a high probability that this would have detonated in her hand/face while she carried it to the trash,” Mansell said in the e-mail.

      A “works” bomb is described as Drano and foil mixed inside a
      bottle. The chemical reaction makes a volatile build-up of gases and
      subsequently detonates the bottle with a great amount of force, with the chemical substance in the bottle becoming boiling liquid at that point, the e-mail said.

      The explosion can be severe enough to cause second- or third-degree burns or blindness, Mansell said in the e-mail.”

      1.  In detroit as well:
        Detroit Public SchoolsPhoenix Multicultural AcademyA juvenile court referee
        has ordered a 13-year-old Detroit boy accused of tossing a “Drano bomb”
        in his school hallway held under house arrest.
        Kathleen Walton-Allen set a March 11 pretrial for the youth following a hearing Thursday.
        boy is charged with possessing an explosive device with unlawful intent
        and creating a disturbance in a school. A plastic bottle containing
        household cleaning liquid was tossed in a hallway Wednesday at the
        Phoenix Multi-Cultural Academy and released smoke after it was thrown,
        forcing the school’s evacuation.
        Walton-Allen ordered the boy to be released into his parents’ custody.
        mother says her son claims not to have set off the homemade device. She
        says he never has been in trouble, but has difficulty learning in

    3. Google “Drano School bomb arrest”.  It seems like a bunch of white boys have been arrested for this over the years.  There was no groundswell of public opinion in their cases.

  2. In the interest of scientific accuracy, it’s more than likely aluminum  foil. Probably an important detail in chemistry.

    1.  It always amazes me that people still say “tin foil”.  I am an old geezer, and I’ve never actually seen tin foil.

    2.  Drain cleaner and Aluminum foil no less.  Easily capable of blinding a person or delivery severe chemical burns, she made a dangerous device and deployed it in a school.  This isn’t a kid who OM NOMMed a pop tart into the shape of a pistol, she endangered others recklessly.  How is it that she knew how to construct this, but had no idea what it would do?

        1. no shit. i didn’t know aluminum foil could explode outside a microwave until this story. where exactly would she have learned this? why wasn’t she required to turn in a plan for her project for review by a teacher so someone could warn her? my school wasn’t great, but they did at least review your project ideas before you were allowed to proceed. so yeah, “crappy educational environment” is a fucking understatement here.

          1. I think that’s literally what she was doing – demoing her project to the science teacher for approval.

    3. Yay! I wasn’t the only one bothered by the “tin” editorial error. Or it could be called aluminium.

    1. Yeah, I support the kid but the acid/aluminum foil is not a fricking baking soda volcano and I wish people would stop babbling about a situation that didn’t occur.

      1.  And as we all know, what could have happened is far more important than what actually happens.  This is our time in a nutshell; punish people for things that haven’t actually happened but let banksters run free.

  3. I, for one, have no idea what she expected.  After all, how can she have any pudding if she don’t eat her meat?

  4. The headline is just plain false.  This wasn’t any sort of school project or classroom volcano.  She brought or found the toilet cleaner and aluminum foil and, perhaps ignorantly, mixed them together in a plastic bottle.

    Even if it was an accident, I think such actions still deserve punishment.  Maybe expulsion is too far.  And maybe they went that far because they are racists.

    But, what she did shouldn’t be glorified.  She didn’t exhibit any sort of “bravery” by mixing chemicals on school grounds.

      1. I’m part of the so-called “scientific community,” and I am also an advocate of safely performing experiments for the advancement of knowledge.  “Just seeing what will happen” is a haphazard way to go about conducting experiments.  Again, to call what she did “brave” does not make any sense.  Had she informed a science teacher, found a suitable location, worn protective gear, and researched the reaction beforehand, it’d be a different story.

        Sorry to rain on everyone’s sunny day.

        1. Who is calling her experiment “brave”? The issue here is the school’s response to what she did.  

          1. From BoingBoing’s post, “On May 16, thanks to Wilmot’s bravery, a crowdfunded project…”

            Perhaps they’re referring to her fighting her legal case along with the ACLU.  But again, I maintain what she did in the first place was plain stupid.  And she’s going to Space Camp.

    1. Did you rtfa? It’s a science experiment, not a bomb. And punishment should not be the zero-tolerance BS. All this FUD shit does is result in students who, 10-20 years ago (our day) would have been thought of as either curious or perhaps a little reckless now being considered criminal. I think back to some of my experiments with lithium and magnesium and wonder if I would’ve ended up in jail instead of AP, and how that might have changed my life (and more importantly, my interest in chemistry). These are crazy times we live in, of that there is no doubt. But that doesn’t mean we should treat everyone like they’re crazy.

      1. “It’s a science experiment, not a bomb”

        Honestly, sometimes there’s not a crazy amount of difference between the two.

        1. Maybe it’s Hollywood’s version of the “mad scientist,” that makes you think what she was doing was an experiment, but it should have been performed in an actual lab, with safety equipment.

          Also, scientists do not mix reactants without having some understanding of what might happen.  At the very least, a thorough understanding of the dangers of each reactant they’re using.

          1. Also, scientists do not mix reactants without having some understanding of what might happen.

            She’s a teenager. Nobody’s suggesting she’s ready for a job at JPL yet.

        2.  ‘Crazy’ is, pretty much the difference. She doesn’t appear to have been motivated by that though.

      2. No, I don’t think it was crazy.  Just stupid.

        She wasn’t wearing protective gear, no teacher was present, no one else was aware of what was going on.

        Go search for this particular reaction on youtube.  In an enclosed bottle like the one she used, it will cause the bottle to explode.

        1. Should she be treated like a terrorist because she did s/t “stupid” with no intent to do harm?

          1. I have tried to get this point across, but it appears I am still failing.

            She endangered other students.  She endangered herself.  Her careless actions resulted in discipline.

            It doesn’t matter that she’s black.

            It doesn’t matter that she’s female.

            It doesn’t matter that she’s in the U.S.

            It doesn’t matter that she’s a human.

          2. Does it matter what her intent was? It seems to me that someone intending to investigate the reaction of two materials has a different degree of culpability than someone intending to cause malicious mischief. The former is the type of thing we should promote in schools. The latter we usually punish.

          3. concern-trolling at it’s finest

            “… but … but … think of the children!!!” *quivering lip*

      3.  These bottle bombs have severely burnt folks in the past, and can easily blind folks.  Wax coating on the foil can delay the spray of lye by up to ten minutes.  She could easily have blinded someone.

    2. She brought or found the toilet cleaner and aluminum foil and, perhaps ignorantly, mixed them together in a plastic bottle.

      Either someone tricked her into it, or she was just recreating a popular Youtube video. The reaction may have been more dramatic than she anticipated, but if she was surprised that it exploded it’s obvious that she didn’t come up with the idea or even Google the reaction. I don’t really see any evidence of science in either case.

      1. I watched a grown man with a chemistry degree do this in a science lab accidentally, not realizing how violent the reaction as going to be.  He had some drano like concoction and poured it out into an aluminum pan for reasons that I can’t remember, but that didn’t involve explosions.   I did a dramatic “no wait!” in slow-mo, but it was too late.  The stuff in the pan started to instantly boil violently and spurt everywhere while giving off a nasty gas.  Thankfully, it was in a fume hood so we just slammed the window down, got some thick gloves, and pour it out.

        More to the point, there are a lot of videos she could have watched that would have lead her to believe that she was making a smaller baking soda and vinegar style reaction, which if you read the article, is what she was going for.  The very first thing I got when I looked up drano and aluminum was this  It doesn’t look like any more of a bomb than a normal baking soda and vinegar reaction.  

        Regardless, it doesn’t matter.  Doing something stupid or poorly planned out is not a reason to expel someone and give them a criminal record.  How the bloody fuck is utterly ruining someone’s life doing anything at all to improve the situation for anyone?  Seriously, name one way in which the world would be improved if the “zero tolerance” bullshit and a criminal record had been executed without the Internet and the ACLU getting involved?

        Do  you know what the REAL intelligent response would have been?  Make the poor girl write an essay the reaction she created, so that she can understand fully why it was probably not a smart idea.  The science teacher should even give her a head start by pointing her towards examining the reaction and the ideal glass law.  Turn a minor accident into a fucking learning experience instead of ruining someone’s life for well meaning youthful thoughtlessness.

        1. My comment had nothing at all to do with the school’s reaction, but I guess criticism of the original experiment would obviously get this kind of response. I did actually RTFA that was linked to on the first post, and it doesn’t sound anything like the experiment you linked to:

          On 7 a.m. on Monday, the 16 year-old mixed some common household chemicals in a small 8 oz water bottle on the grounds of Bartow High School in Bartow, Florida. The reaction caused a small explosion that caused the top to pop up and produced some smoke. No one was hurt and no damage was caused.

          It’s no big deal and no one got hurt, and obviously the school’s reaction was extreme. Even if it was just a joke, plenty of people first got into science because  they liked cool explosions. YMMV, but when I searched for “Drano aluminium” on Youtube I found the video you linked to and one more video of a similar experiment that isn’t an explosion, but they aren’t first and you would have to be selective to choose them over the other results. Neither of them involved sealed water bottles, so I think it’s fairly obvious what she was going for.

          Do you know what the REAL intelligent response would have been?  Make the poor girl write an essay the reaction she created, so that she can understand fully why it was probably not a smart idea.

          Yes, that would have made a lot more sense.

        2.  On a related note, if you are into soapmaking, you may or may not have found that it is a bad idea to use an aluminum pan when adding the lye.  I hadn’t known this in advance and was surprised when my pan ended up with a hole in it.  Lucky I didn’t try this at school.

      2. Or maybe it was a science experiment and she knew they would react.  I was aware there would have been a reaction when I was her age.  Do you think it impossible that maybe she paid attention in class?

  5. I was the type of kid that would’ve done something like this at school. And if I got caught, I probably would’ve claimed it was a “science experiment” too. 

    1. When we were teens my brother, cousins and I once attempted to make gunpowder with an old-school chemistry set. Turns out it’s not quite as easy as Captain Kirk made it look in that episode where he fought the Gorn.

  6. If the real-life events dramatized in the movie October Sky took place today those kids would be facing hard time. (Unless the kids were dark skinned or Muslim, in which case they’d be shipped off to Gitmo or targeted with a drone strike.)

  7. The “dean of discipline”.  What does that tell you about our system and way of thinking?

    1. Great point.  Why does an educational institution have a “dean of discipline” but not an orchestra?  Priorities, priorities.

    2. I wouldn’t doubt that this is an official post in charter schools and/or “alternative” schools for behavioral problems.

  8. I am very pleased, and relieved, by this denouement. I loathe the combination of ignorance, authoritarianism and fear of litigation that led to the severity of the charges brought against her, much less the decision to charge her as an adult.

    It’s encouraging that internet calls for justice worked in this case. And I’m even happier that the internet outrage resulted in an opportunity for further education for Kiera and her sister.

    Dare I say it? Hooray!

    1. Yes, but I’ll give an even bigger hooray if feckless school administrators – and the air-headed panic-driven middle-class helicopter PTA parents that can’t handle reality because they were raised in a bubble – the nation over learn something from this and stop drum-majoring our collective march to the bottom. I’m not holding my breath though.

  9. What about the teacher? The teacher approved the project. If anyone should get reprimanded, shouldn’t it be him/her for a lack of oversight? 

    1. There was no project.  No teacher approved it.  It was just a kid putting drano and foil in a bottle like on Youtube.    Nobody knew this was going to happen until she arrived and it exploded.

  10. Last year we made the decision to remove our kids from public school and enroll them in virtual academy. They still have to take the state assessment tests and things like that. Their scores have never been higher. They are finally in an environment that fosters exploration, values knowledge, and the best part – we let them be kids.

    1.  Great. Now hopefully they will be smart enough to eventually come up with a solution to fix the system you pulled them out of.

    2. “the best part – we let them be kids”

      And sometimes the world does not call for manchildren and womanchildes.

      1. Oh for fucks sake.  If they’re still kids, they aren’t “manchildren,”  and I don’t think regimenting every instant of their day is going to make them not grow up into “manchildren.”  The opposite is much more likely.

  11. The only zero tolerance policy I can get behind is one that causes school administrators to be immediately fired for citing zero tolerance policies as their excuse for not exercising basic common sense and concern for the kids they’re supposed to be helping.  And maybe for the idiots that put such policies into place.  Yeah, let’s take discretion and judgement out of the process of expelling and arresting our kids, and give stupid sadistic assholes something to hide behind when they get called on their sadistic, stupid actions.

  12. I’m sure other kids have done this. Why haven’t we heard of them being disciplined? I’m going to assume it’s because the majority of kids are white.

    1.  Isn’t that not the case any more? I’m sure I heard that visible minorities are greater in number in the US now than white people.

      1. You would only hear that if you listened to rumors spread by conservative asshats. If you read the Census Bureau reports, you’d know that won’t be true for some time. Why spread disinformation when the real answer is a google away?

        1.  Asking a question is not spreading disinformation. It is, in fact, the opposite.
          Thank you for setting me straight on the demographics though.

      2. While untrue, it’s still irrelevant to the disproportionate rates of being targeted by law enforcement.

        1. Exactly why I said it. I’m not an apologist for stupid authority. I’m trying to get people that I agree with to argue more convincingly.

    2. Kids rarely bring their drano-aluminum foil bombs into class instead of planting and running.

    3.  Google “Drano bomb arrest school”.  Theres been many kids arrested for this.

      1. That doesn’t show the full picture, that only shows the ones who get arrested. That doesn’t show the ones who don’t get arrested. When someone does something and doesn’t get arrested, it isn’t in the news. That’s a form of selection bias.

        The articles also don’t always mention race, so even for those arrested, it is incomplete data.

        1. Also, in many of those articles, the people were also making pipe bombs, or had a conspiracy and intent to actually blow something up… Yet I still don’t see a mention of expulsion in the first page or so of results that I read.

    4. I’d suspect that we’re hearing more about this because she played the “I’m doing science” card.   I know teachers in a variety of school districts, and they told me three to five kids get busted and expelled for this a year in their districts.  

      People seem to be paying more attention to this case because she cried “scientist” and “racism.”   I never would have known about it if I hadn’t seen the “I’m doing science” on thirty plus blogs.

  13. I can imagine the arraignment: “You are being charged with reckless curiosity, attempted scientific experimentation, and aggravated adolescence. How do you plead?” But seriously, there has to be a false imprisonment, false arrest, and malicious prosecution case in here somewhere. 

  14. “I’ve never gotten in trouble this year other than a dress code violation because my skirt was two inches too short.”
    Is this a school or a jail?

    1. US public schools are basically training grounds for prisons.
      Skeptical inquiry, critical thinking, experimentation, etc. are far below secondary in an institution whose primary purpose is to encourage unquestioning obedience + standing in long lines.

  15. Zn + NaOH = Na2Zn = H2 
    This reaction creates heat and Hydrogen gas, we used to do this as kids after we were  taught this in Jr. High chemistry.  Do it in a strong bottle have a water bath for the bottle to keep it cool put a balloon over the top to collect the  Hydrogen, tie a long fuse on the balloon, light the fuse and release the balloon into the air. She could have easily found this out and probably had some idea.
    My eighth grade science project was homemade explosives. Thanks Roger Bacon and Abbie Hoffman.

  16. To those who are making comments based on the synopsis here instead of following the link to the original article: you should go read the original article. There is detail there. It might not change your mind about anything substantive, but at least you won’t sound like some shoot-from-the-hip flutter-by who didn’t read the article.

    Just sayin’.

  17. Seriously, I can’t think of a story in recent memory that has given me more hope for teenagers and less for adults.  The adults for the stupid reactions (though obviously, not all of them, including the many fine people who tried to help her), but for the girl, not only the scientific curiosity (with a bit of a mistake of being too curious and not checking enough), but also:

    a) acknowledging that she did wrong and deserves punishment (and suggesting a far more serious a punishment than I would have given her)
    b) recognizing that her sister is suffering and feeling left out while she’s been given the positive attention and scholarships

    Some good school oughta snap up these kids.

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