A central Florida teenager who was accused of igniting a chemical explosion on school grounds -- and who became the subject of a grassroots social media campaign on her behalf -- will not face criminal charges, authorities said Wednesday.
Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill wrote in a statement that the case against 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot has been dismissed, but that she must complete a diversion program.
The teen was arrested April 22 and faced possible felony charges after school administrators reported she combined toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a bottle, and the resulting gas blew the cap off the plastic bottle, according to the police report. The explosion happened outside, before school started, and no one was injured.
Kiera told Bartow police she was doing a science experiment, but science teachers said they had no knowledge of an experiment.
"Based upon the facts and circumstances of the case, the lack of criminal history of the child involved, and the action taken by the Polk County School Board, the State Attorney's Office extended an offer of diversion of prosecution to the child," Hill said in the statement. "The child and her guardian signed the agreement to successfully complete the Department of Juvenile Justice Diversion Program."
Details about the program aren't public record because Kiera is a juvenile.
The teen's arrest launched an outcry on social media by people who thought the arrest was unfair and heavy-handed.
Nearly 200,000 people signed an online petition protesting her arrest, and her name trended on Twitter for a few days. Several heavily trafficked websites wrote about her case, saying that she shouldn't face felony charges for a science experiment gone bad -- and that an arrest in the case sent the wrong message to budding scientists. Other columnists felt that Kiera was treated harshly because she is black -- and that a white student doing a similar experiment wouldn't have been handcuffed and arrested.
"With this type of thinking is it any wonder Black and Latino Children are under-represented in Science Fairs," wrote DNLee, a biologist and popular blogger for the Scientific American website. "If everyone around you has the idea that only legitimate science experiments are those sanctioned and prescribed to students, then when are students expected to explore independent authentic science interests? In Bartow, Florida, I guess the answer is no."
Brian Haas, a spokesman for the state attorney's office, said the massive online support for Kiera had nothing to do with the decision not to prosecute.
"Not one bit," Haas said. "It's certainly something we were aware of. We looked at this like we would any other case involving a juvenile. We don't evaluate and make decisions on our cases based on what's being said on the Internet."
Kiera's attorney, Larry Hardaway, said on Wednesday that the teen and her mother are relieved -- but that they are still negotiating with the Polk County School Board regarding Kiera's academic future.
Hardaway said that Kiera is worried that people at the school think she's a "terrorist" and is eager to clear her name there, as well.
After the incident, she was suspended for 10 days. She has been attending classes at an alternative school in the district.
Bartow High School Principal Ron Pritchard earlier had recommended her expulsion for a year, based on the district's Code of Conduct.
That recommendation was put on hold until the criminal allegations against her were resolved. School officials said the case will go before a School Board hearing officer now that the criminal proceedings are completed.
"We look forward to resolving all of the issues," Hardaway said.
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