Thursday, October 23, 2014

Denver chemistry teacher charged w/assault for methanol demo

A former teacher is being charged in connection with an explosion at a Denver charter school that injured four students, one critically. 
Daniel Powell, 24, has been served with a summons charging him with four counts of third-degree assault, a class 1 misdemeanor, the Denver District Attorney said in a news release Wednesday. 
The charges allege that on Sept. 15, Powell was negligent when he poured methanol on a small fire during a demonstration in a high school science classroom at STRIVE Preparatory Schools SMART Academy. "As a chemistry teacher at a high school using those materials, his behavior was negligent," said Lynn Kimbrough, district attorney spokeswoman. 
Powell was served a summons on Friday. Because the charges are misdemeanors, he is free without bond. 
He is scheduled to appear in Denver County Court on Nov. 18. 
Powell was fired by the school earlier this month. 
Student Dominic Vargas, 16, suffered serious burns to the upper part of his body in the methanol blast....
Sometimes, I think that criminal prosecution is the form of policy making in this country with the least ROI, but it seems to generate movement overall. No one wants to go to jail or have a criminal record because of the lack of following best practices. But here we are.

If anyone has a great idea about how to stop the rainbow demonstration (and the general use of fire + methanol around kids), I'm listening. 


  1. The UCLA Harran debacle plus this now are strong indication that the age of insouciance is over for chemistry faculty. Much laboratory work is inherently dangerous, especially given the limits of one's personal knowledge of the day in day out safety of any given procedure. Universities will need to adopt safety standards more familiar to the US chemical industry, and any demonstrations with the potential to injure students, even when executed with gross incompetence or negligence, will need to be banned entirely. I can't think of any reason why methanol should even be stocked in high school labs in the present day. Of course I like many others of my generation was making things go boom in high school, but you can't do that anymore. Drag racing was big in the 50s. Try it today and you could be looking at assault, negligent homicide, and 10 years of ugly insurance bills. I'm not saying this is good or bad. Times change. Let's see how many more injuries, fatalities, and criminal indictments it takes for a very different safety culture to be imposed.

  2. I wonder if there are more demonstration injuries now then in the past. I would suspect not, its just now they are more advertised.

    As someone that does demos, I do take precautions, but there is always a little risk. Do we end demos for fear of possible lawsuits?

    How does a teacher know if he is "competent" to do demo's?

    1. I suspect that teachers today are weaker at chemistry fundamentals because the upper-level undergrad courses in their major are removed to make room for education theory courses. That said, the occasional incident probably didn't make it past the local paper in the pre-Internet days.

      Another problem, common to both the present and the old days, is that a teacher certified in one subject can be asked to teach another. A physics or biology teacher with a year of college chemistry might be teaching high school chemistry in some cases, and these kinds of people can know just enough to be dangerous.

    2. I'm going out on a limb and saying that if you think it's a good idea to pour methanol onto a flame, you're not competent. I'm curious if these teachers have any sort of demo training? Or do they just read procedures? Maybe some sort of annual safety / demo test should be administered to teachers.

  3. Chemjobber, I don't mean to be argumentative but unless my school establishes a policy against it, I will not discontinue doing the rainbow-flame demo with methanolic solutions. I have weighed in with my comments before but to reiterate, I have done this demo hundreds of times (not an exaggeration) and, after testing alternatives, have never found another form of the demo that is as impressive for a large class/assembly setting. We do not need to stop the demos...we need people to be educated before they perform the demos. We need to make sure that people do not become complacent about the flammability of methanol...maybe make sure that part of our demo is explaining why we pour the methanol BEFORE lighting any of the solutions or why we use a small container of methanol/wait for the flame to go out before we refill anything. I equate this to trying to ban tBuLi after the UCLA I completely off base here?

    1. Actually, I don't think you're completely off-base, but it's clear to me that the average chemistry teacher, if they keep doing this experiment, will have a student injured.

      I would be equally okay with an ACS policy that said "most teachers should not do this experiment" or "teachers should only do this experiment with some level of proper safety preparation" or "you must be trained to do this experiment and have done it successfully 10 times alone before you do it yourself."

      I would be happy to host a longer comment from you as a post (sourced anonymously, if you'd like) about why you feel that banning this demonstration is a bad idea. If it's made up of previous comments from you, that'd be okay, too. E-mail is chemjobber -at- gmail dot com.

      Cheers, CJ

    2. Ack, I meant "10 times alone before you do it in front of students."


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20