‘Just let this kid get on with her life’: Science tutor for arrested Florida teen speaks out

Kiera Wilmot, seen in a screengrab from msnbc's All In w/ Chris Hayes
Kiera Wilmot, seen in a screengrab from msnbc's All In w/ Chris Hayes

Last week, 16-year-old Florida native Kiera Wilmot was arrested for exploding the cap off a plastic water bottle as part of an apparent extra-curricular science experiment. If charged with a felony as an adult, she could now face up to five years in prison for “discharging a weapon or firearms” on school grounds. But Wilmot family friend Roderic Brame told msnbc his “gut feeling” is that “cooler heads will prevail.”

“I understand the whole thing about having something that will explode, or be percussive, or cause harm to other people,” he said. “I totally get that. But basically, she just blew the top off a soda bottle.”

Brame said he has known the Wilmot family for over three years. He first met Kiera’s mother, Marie Wilmot, in January 2010, when he was working at University of South Florida Polytechnic and she was working for the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research. They became acquainted due to a pending merger between the two institutions.

“She said something about her girls failing earth science” during one of their meetings, said Brame. Because he was a former high school science teacher, they decided that he would tutor Kiera and her twin sister Kayla, both of whom were in ninth grade at the time.

Kiera is “very pleasant, easygoing, [and] gets along with people,” said Brame. She and her sister “are not so excited about the science stuff, but they’re good at the engineering stuff and they like it.”

In the press, Wilmot has been described as a good student with a “perfect behavior record.” Brame said that “as far as I know, she’s a good student,” and that two summers ago she even served as a mentor for younger children at a summer program called the Central Florida Gifted and Talented Institute.

It was through their work with younger children that Brame realized Kiera and Kayla had a facility for working with robotics. They were invited to teacher workshops where they taught educators at the Bartow Elementary Academy, a magnet school, “how to build robots, how to program them, how to build everything,” he said.

When news of the arrest broke, Brame said, the family called him right away. He told them to get a lawyer, and tried to reassure Kiera and Kayla.

“I said…you’re going to hear all kinds of stuff from people, but all I want you to know is you’re smart, beautiful, and capable,” he said.

One week after the arrest, he described the sisters as “upset,” but also “solemn [and] pretty humble about all of this.”

“She’s cautious about all this stuff,” he said. “She doesn’t fully understand the long range ramifications of this.” In a small town like Bartow, those ramifications could include difficulty reintegrating into the community after a criminal trial, and new barriers to pursuing higher education. Already, he said, some residents of Bartow had suggested Kiera deserved prosecution.

“There are demographics and things probably left over from twenty, thirty years ago, if you’re an African American and you’re an African American woman,” he said. He also said part of the town’s reaction could be due to “bad timing,” given that the arrest occurred not along after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Since the arrest, members of the scientific community have stepped forward to defend Wilmot.

“Her expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color,” wrote biologist Danielle Lee for Scientific American. ”Don’t try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!” Shortly after she wrote about the story, various other scientists took to Twitter with stories of the explosions they had caused during their own experimentation.

“We did much worse things [than Wilmot] when I was in school,” said Brame. “Even in college, we made things that ignited and exploded in chemistry labs…We didn’t get in trouble for that.” He expressed hope that Wilmot would also evade excessive punishment for her experimentation.

“Just let this kid get on with her life,” he said.