Mad Science or School-to-Prison? Criminalizing Black Girls

kiera wilmot

By Sikivu Hutchinson

High stakes test question: A female science student conducts an experiment with chemicals that explodes in a classroom, causes no damage and no injuries.  Who gets to be the adventurous teenage genius mad scientist and who gets to be the criminal led away in handcuffs facing two felonies to juvenile hall? If you’re a white girl check Box A, if you’re an intellectually curious black girl with good grades check Box B.  When 16 year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested and expelled from Bartow high school in Florida for a science experiment gone awry it exemplified a long American-as-apple pie tradition of criminalizing black girls.  In many American classrooms black children are treated like ticking time bomb savages, shoved into special education classes, disproportionately suspended and expelled then warehoused in opportunity schools, juvenile jails and adult prisons.  Yet, while national discourse on the connection between school discipline and mass incarceration typically focuses on black males, black girls are suspended more than boys of every other ethnicity (except black males).  At a Georgia elementary school in 2012 a six year-old African American girl was handcuffed by the police after throwing a tantrum in the principal’s office.[i]  Handcuffing disruptive black elementary school students is not uncommon.  It is perhaps the most extreme example of black children’s initiation into what has been characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline, or, more accurately, the cradle to grave pipeline.  Stereotypes about dysfunctional violent black children ensure that the myth of white children’s relative innocence is preserved.

Nationwide, black children spend more time in the dean’s office, more time being opportunity transferred to other campuses and more time cycling in and out of juvenile detention facilities than children of other ethnicities.  Conservatives love to attribute this to poverty, broken homes, and the kind of Bell Curve dysfunction that demonizes “welfare queens” who pop out too many babies.  Yet there is no compelling evidence that socioeconomic differences play a decisive role in these disparities.[ii]  The fact remains that black children are criminalized by racist discipline policies regardless of whether they’re privileged “Cosby kids” or are in foster care or homeless shelters.  According to Daniel Losen and Russell Skiba, authors of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Suspended Education” report, “ethnic and racial disproportionately in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled.[iii]

National research such as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s study and the Indiana Education Policy Center’s 2000 “The Color of Discipline” report has consistently shown that black students do not, in fact, “offend” at higher rates than their white and Latino counterparts.[iv] Middle class African American students in higher income schools are also disproportionately suspended.  This implies that black students are perceived by adults as more viscerally threatening.  “The Color of Discipline” report found that black students were more likely to be referred out of class for lower level offenses such as excessive noise, disrespect, loitering and “threat.”[v]  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “race and gender disparities in suspension were due not to differences in administrative disposition but to differences in the rate of initial referral of black and white students.”

When it comes to black girls, the widespread perception that they are dangerous, hostile and ineducable is promoted and reinforced by mainstream media portrayals.  Historically, black women have never been regarded as anybody’s “fairer sex” because white women have always been the universal standard for femininity, humanity, and moral worth.  On contemporary TV and in film, heroic white women abound as “new” models of bold, adventurous, breakthrough femininity.  Writing on “women’s” TV portrayals recently in the L.A. Times, Mary McNamara gushed about how the current crop of small screen female protagonists were complexly layered, daring departures from the typical crone, slut and mother roles of the past.  According to McNamara, “TV’s female leads are breaking ground with their unexpected choices. Thanks to the feminist revolution and TV’s increasing ascendancy, women are allowed to make mistakes without paying the ultimate price. It’s all quite refreshing.”

Yet once again the “feminist revolution” is lily white and over-exposed.  The article hails characters from “House of Cards,” HBO’s swaggering white-fest “Girls” and “Homeland,” then blithely acknowledges that the female protagonists of these shows are all white and mostly middle class.  Previous pieces from both the L.A. Times and the New York Times have saluted the rise of ass-kicking female adventurers like those in the “Hunger Games”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and (even) Pixar’s animated movie “Brave” as evidence that Hollywood is becoming more receptive to strong independent female characters.

But back in the image ghetto, substantive, much less starring roles, for women of color are still less abundant than Aunt Jemima’s head scarf.  The endless parade of reality show swill featuring hyper-sexual “out of control” brawling black women has long dwarfed dramatic mainstream portrayals of black women’s lived experiences, ambitions and narratives.

Thus, Kiera Wilmot’s arrest and expulsion is a national travesty.  It is an indictment not just of the inveterate racism and sexism of American public education but of an image industry that still loves to see black women doing mammy, Jezebel and welfare queen to white women’s heroic explorers.


[i] See Jeff Martin and Jeri Clausing, “Police Handcuff Georgia Kindergartner for Tantrum, Huffington Post, April 17, 2012, (  (Accessed January 31, 2013).

[ii] See Daniel J. Losen and Russell J. Skiba, “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010, p. 8.  “If we assume that Black and Hispanic poverty rates are similar in these districts (as they are nationally) and if we assume that Black males and females have similar exposure to poverty it becomes difficult to explain why suspension rates are so much higher for Black males than for both Hispanic males and Black females.” Losen and Skiba cite previous research that has not identified a link between socioeconomic background or poverty and high rates of suspension (e.g., Skiba, 2002, Wallace 2009, APA 2008).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. pp. 3-6.  Losen and Skiba report that there has been a 9 point increase in black suspensions from 1973 to the present, such that “Blacks are now more than three times more likely to be suspended than whites.”  Based on data from 18 districts nationwide they also concluded that white females were the least likely to be suspended and black males the most likely out of all racial and ethnic groups. See also, Russell J. Skiba, et al. “The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment,” Indiana Education Policy Center, Policy Research Report: SR1, June 2000, pp. 1-26.

[v] See also Losen and Skiba, p. 10.

Mad Science or School-to-Prison? Criminalizing Black Girls

17 thoughts on “Mad Science or School-to-Prison? Criminalizing Black Girls

  1. 2

    Yes, and black children are disproportionately shut out of gatekeeping college prep science courses like Physics with more opportunities to “matriculate” at juvenile detention facilities than at top STEM universities.

    1. 3.1

      OK. So what?
      1. That’s anecdotal. (You don’t think the people you know are necessarily representative of the population as a whole, do you?)
      2. This article isn’t saying that white males never get detention, but rather at rates less than blacks. Quote, “In many American classrooms black children are…disproportionately suspended and expelled.” There’s nothing here about “black children get expelled for things white children do not.”

      1. My point is that bangs aren’t automatically followed by expulsion, never mind criminal charges. What’s your point? “Here’s a woman daring to comment – jump down her throat”?

  2. 5

    Holy crap…when I was 13, we got our own back (briefly) on the rockers who were then our mortal enemies (we being the school geek squad) by making a bunch of party balloons with hydrogen in them, KNOWING that when we took them through the smoking area, the assholes would respond as bullies with cigarettes always respond to balloons.

    Okay? We deliberately made an explosive, and handed it to people who didn’t know it was explosive, knowing they would set it off.

    We didn’t even get detentions.

    We had the police out to look in on our various explosive experiments; living on the edge of our city, there were fields around, and we used them for lots of explosions, including plenty of black powder we’d made. We made a cannon out of soup-tins and a hell of a lot of duct tape, which would fire a tennis ball through a Gremlin car door.

    The police came out often, but mostly were interested in how we’d figured out how to make our own powder (pre-Internet), how we’d constructed the cannon (o-a welding was involved), that kind of thing. They never told our parents, never took us in, never even told us to stop, once they saw our safety setup. But still.

    We did it on the school grounds, showed off demos in science class, everyone knew we did it.

    And we were never punished for any of it. Ever. Not so much as a detention.

    That, my friends, is a Whomping Big Can of White Privilege. And Male Privilege (people thought I was a boy at the time, cause I hadn’t told them different yet).

    And it’s why I’m damned sure that this is a Big Can of Having No Privilege At All, and is a major piece of crap education policy. Thanks for writing about it.

    1. 5.1

      Now that I think about it, I had a classmate (white, male) that wanted to build a potato cannon. He was encouraged to do so by our science teacher, too. I think the science teacher expected him to fail, which he did. I guess I don’t know what would have happened had something gone seriously wrong, like if the cannon had exploded and hurt those observing. Still, we promoted safety in our science classes because we knew this kind of thing could happen.

  3. Pen

    What’s particularly bizarre is that it appears to have been an accident. It’s well known that deliberate infractions by white kids are treated differently than the same infractions by black kids. At my secondary school (all white, British) the boys who deliberately made explosives were feted by teachers and students alike as the best and brightest (and given detention, admittedly).

    I do wonder a bit about the whole context this is taking place in. What are the demographics of the school? The staff? The neighbourhood? Is the school ‘on edge’ generally as regards safety? Are all schools in America generally on edge at the moment? And what about the aftermath? Have they backed down yet?

  4. 7

    The reporert in the video link said it was against school policy to posses explosive materials on the school property…well by the same policy shouldn’t the Head of the Science Dept. be made to remove all chemical compunds from its stores that could be used to create an explosice device?

  5. 8

    Adding to the chorus, at my lily white high school, the chemistry teacher took the class out back of the building and showed us how to make thermite.

    On a slight tangent:

    Previous pieces from both the L.A. Times and the New York Times have saluted the rise of ass-kicking female adventurers like those in the “Hunger Games”, “

    And apparently the movies whitewashed the main character, too.

  6. 11

    Yup, and things were even more lax in the past. I’m 66 and did some daft things when in highschool.
    did an essay on the radio about it a few years ago:
    Busts or Booms? (2007-04-17)
    Ahh! First loves!—And no, I’m not waxing sentimental about Mandy Erlenbach , or that girl that time in Barcelona near the Sagrada Familia, nor Bettina Wirtz on student exchange from Hannover or was it Hamburg: no … no … you see the other day I saw an article on a news site about some teenager or other who was arrested for making explosives; and it immediately reminded me of my first love…
    Back when I was young, many a long and torturous year and mile ago; back at school in England; back when one of my kinder nicknames was ‘Professor’ often (boys being of course boys in their dealings with the more original thinker) with the co-cognomen of ‘Leery’; back in my rooty East Anglia-of-the-beautiful-Broads (not the aforementioned girls, but rather small and lovely lakes); back (to make a long story less long) around 1960 there was, in nearby Great Yarmouth, a chemist’s shop.
    Now an English chemist’s shop was (in fact still is) what you Americans would call a pharmacy. And this one; independent, dark and seemingly from an age even earlier than that of my tale; was a rich and sparkling cave of delight to a lover of chemistry.
    Being myself at the time a member of the boys-will-of-course-be-boys-brigade my love of chemistry, and my main claim to fame at school, centred on making things that went, if not bump in the night, then bang at preferably the most unexpected of times.
    I made gunpowder, and chlorate’n’sugar, and some really quite exotic explosives—all of which, or at least the ingredients for all of which, could be bought at that chemist’s shop in profusion and often in quite obvious and promiscuous proximity. Why on a time projecting to create that simple (simple at least to make), but extremely unstable and high, explosive Nitrogen Triiodide , I went in and purchased Iodine crystals and .880 Ammonia and a packet of filter papers to collect the precipitate—not since that old joke about the little shop on the corner where you could buy a big bag of rat poison … and a rat … has such obtuseness been observed in the commercial sector—I mean, I mean, short of asking him outright if he had anything that I could spread, when damp onto, say, the bottom of a toilet seat, that when dry would explode loudly enough to induce abject hysterical diarrhoea into anyone using said seat, could I have been any more obvious? We are talking here of a compound that in tiny quantities, when dry and prodded gently with a fairly long stick, would leave the ears ringing unanswerably.
    The list of chemicals so purchased frightens the mature me: I got red and yellow phosphorous, sodium and potassium and magnesium and powdered aluminium metals, conc. (indeed fuming) H2SO4 and HNO3 and a whole pharmacopœia of other nasties.
    Then there was the incident of Mike and the matchlock. Mike Playle (or Bucket as we hypocoristically hypo-lambdacised his last name) was into engineering (and indeed survived and is an engineer to this very day) and our Bucket built a matchlock rifle (though it was actually smooth bored) and I made gunpowder for it, a good batch—a damn good batch; and one day, out on Aldeby Marshes, to test it he took careful aim down a long water-filled dyke, fired, sent his slug to splash … Oh a good hundred yards down the dyke—and the end-plug of the gun (thank goodness he must have flinched as he fired) to whistling past his ear almost as far behind him. Now THAT was what I called a good batch of gunpowder, and a bit of good luck that day for Mike, who of course just managed to avoid kicking the bucket.
    Now-a-days no doubt I would be arrested as a potential terrorist or worse, but even back in those less paranoid times, of course, things still came to a head—quite literally, and indeed to mine! When working on some solid rocket fuel and wearing a safety mask like a wimp I raised the grubby thing for a moment for a clearer view of my work at the exact moment that the mix chose to demonstrate how unstable both it and my fate could be. I ended up in a lot of pain and hospital, with eyes like frosted glass and a face like a jack-o-lantern long after halloween.
    That was a pretty good batch too.
    Finally: I suppose if they HAD been a bit more strict in those days both my eyes would now work as Nature and the makers of Jaws-3D (not to mention those horrible red and green lensed glasses) intended, but what can you do…
    Cheerio for now
    from the quasi-monocular
    Richard Howland-Bolton

  7. 12

    Well, are you really THAT much surprised, now that political correctness is devouring its own children?

    Whenever authorities and beaurocrats are forced to exercise indiscriminate stupidity instead of common sense, as political correctness demands of them, they will make extremely stupid decisions that look equally stupid to any outside observer.

    This is not racism, it’s cultural marxism.

  8. 13

    […] dropout rates, including punitive corrective measures such as expulsion and detention that are applied disproportionately to African American students for the same offenses as white students. When we have a criminal […]

  9. 14

    […] dropout rates, including punitive corrective measures such as expulsion and detention that are applied disproportionately to African American students for the same offenses as white students. When we have a criminal […]

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