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An Open Letter To Kiera Wilmot’s Prosecutors From A Former Bartow High School Student

To John Steward, Ronald Pritchard, and the Bartow Police Department,

My name is Josette Souza. I am currently a third year student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and I am a former Bartow High School student.

I am writing this letter to urge the Bartow Police Department, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and Bartow High School to drop the felony charges against Kiera Wilmot, to allow her to finish her education at Bartow High School, to erase the arrest from every record, and for the State to begin several rigorous, externally-conducted investigations into the State of Florida’s complicity with the School-to-Prison Pipeline, racist law enforcement practices, and draconian sentence giving.

As I write this letter, the memories of my time at Bartow are flooding my mind. Thinking of my time at Bartow usually brings me joy, but today and for the last week every time I think of the school I feel nothing but anger and shame.

I used to look back at my time at Bartow with joy because although the school’s (as well as the State’s) standard of education compared to the rest of the country is incredibly low, I was fortunate enough to have a few good, dedicated teachers who pushed me to explore learning outside of the classroom and pursue my individual intellectual interests. Given the quality of a general Florida education in a rural, working class town, were it not for my teachers’ encouragement to pursue learning outside of the classroom, I would not have been able to attend an Ivy League institution, where the vast majority of the student population has had much greater access to learning materials, academic resources, high standards of education, and teachers and administrators who encouraged their extracurricular pursuits instead of punishing them for it.

The way you are handling Kiera Wilmot’s case is beyond ridiculous—it is a grave injustice. Let’s just stop all the pretending. This is not a question of a student “making a bad choice”. This is not about some far-fetched idea of an intense dedication to the school Code of Conduct. This is not about actions “having consequences”. This is about punishing a black girl for being curious at a school with an infamously low-level of education.

Florida is one of the most difficult states to be black in. The constant assaults on black people’s livelihoods, bodies, education, access to employment, resources, voting rights, and lives in Florida are some of the most egregious in the country.

This is a state that waited 6 weeks to arrest George Zimmerman and yet arrested Cece McDonald almost immediately, charged her with second degree murder with intent, and didn’t allow her to receive follow up treatment for injuries sustained while defending herself for two months. Or a state that gives a 20-year jail sentence to Marissa Alexander for defending herself, proving that “Stand Your Ground” laws are only meant to “protect” some.

This is a state where Police Lt. Ron Johnson, a cop with a “distinguished career”, can say “This is why they [black people] should be drowned at birth” and was allowed to retire with full benefits, instead of being fired or the state starting an investigation into a police force that allows anti-black racists to serve as police officers.

This is a state where the youth detention rate has risen by 10% between 2008 and 2010 under Polk County Sherif Grady Judd, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is a state that handcuffs five-year-olds for throwing a tantrum.

And it is within this state that Kiera Wilmot has been arrested and charged with two felonies as a 16-year-old adult, while the same prosecutor, Tammy Glotfelty, is not pressing charges against a white 13-year-old boy who accidentally fatally shot his 10-year-old brother. Of course, Glotfelty is right not to prosecute him, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that one child playing with a potentially harmful object is allowed the benefits of childhood naiveté while the other is not. Glotfelty waited for around one month before deciding not to prosecute the 13-year-old, whereas she’s pegged Kiera with two felony charges almost immediately following the incident.

It does not matter to the Bartow Police Force that Kiera hurt absolutely nobody, that she did not run away, that she cooperated with the police officers, that according to most news sources she’s never given any reason for people to suspect she was trying to hurt anyone, or that the Code of Conduct is intended to protect students from malicious and intentional harm. None of that matters because Kiera Wilmot is black and crime is her destiny. Right?

That’s how it is Polk County, is it not? I mean, it’s obvious. Just look at how one of the first articles covering the event depicts Kiera. Tampa’s ABC Action News reporter Jacqueline Ingles spends the first few paragraphs of the article describing all the possible harm this experiment “could” have done, from “blowing up a mailbox” to “creating projectiles”. There is no mention of Kiera’s own words, no mention of the principal’s defense of her being a “good kid”, nor any mention at all that no harm or damage was committed in any way. There’s only a sensationalized, theoretical “account” of a “bad” kid “committing a crime”, backed up with a couple statements quoted from Bartow High senior Elvin Brea calling Kiera “weird” and saying “Yeah it seems like something they would do”. This article is not-so-subtly condemning Kiera to damnation, with not even a hint of a benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, nearly every other news source presents their account from a position that Kiera is innocent until proven guilty, stressing that although she may have broken the school’s Code of Conduct she does not deserve to be expelled, forced to continue her education in a special program, and charged with two felonies as an adult. They quote classmates and the principal saying she had good grades and a perfect behavioral record, none of which are mentioned in that ABC Action News article.

The worst part about this whole incident is that it is not unique. The United States, Florida especially, has been increasing its arrests and prosecutions of minors, targeting students of color specifically. As private prisons slowly take over Florida and make moves on college campuses by attempting to give large monetary donations to Florida Atlantic University, Florida’s School-to-Prison Pipeline is the largest in the country. And this is no secret. The secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Wansley Walters, told the Orlando Sentinel that “[t]he vast majority of children being arrested in schools are not committing criminal acts”. And of those children, the Orlando Sentinel reports that black students make up 46% of school-related referrals to law enforcement, even though are 21% of the state’s population.

The picture gets worst when you consider what happens after children are arrested. A study conducted by professors at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania shows that black defendants are, at best, 30% more likely to receive a prison sentence, for the same crime. Not to mention the fact that another study conducted by professors at the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan Law School show that prison sentences for black people are almost 60% longer than those for white people, for the same crime. Add in State laws dictating that people charged with felonies cannot vote and the absence of laws that protect former felons from job discrimination, and you’re putting Kiera Wilmot on a road to destitution and the denial of her basic human and citizen rights. Which, of course, you’ll blame her for all the way down.

It is time that true justice was enforced in Florida. I urge you all to begin with Kiera Wilmot’s case. The State cannot hide behind its acts of injustice for much longer. Sooner or later Florida will have to answer for its crimes of criminalizing black people for being black and poor, exploiting black labor in for-profit prisons, and running police departments that are complicit in these crimes. Drop the charges against Kiera Wilmot, allow her to finish high school at Bartow High, and end your persecution of black and brown people now!

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