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Two students in Harrison Co. School District had been bullied and heard enough about friends being bullied when they decided to do something about it.
So began The Cloud Effect, an anti-bullying campaign started by D’lberville High School 9th graders Mary Kaitlyn Jones and Mena Landry to encourage students to speak up when they see bullying happening.
“In 8th grade me and her were bullied a lot because I have a skin condition called vitiligo,” Landry described. Vitiligo is a skin disorder in which white patches of skin appear on different parts of the body.
Jones was also the subject of some bullying due to an accident when she was three years old requiring her to have the toes on her right foot amputated.
Aside from their own experiences, the issue came to a head when they both saw a video posted on YouTube of a friend in neighboring Jackson County School District being punched on the school bus. What stood out most to the girls was the lack of interference or defense by the other students on the bus.
“We’ve known her since 2nd grade. It just really hurt us to know that nobody did anything,” Jones described. “Everybody was egging it on on the bus.”
The video of the incident shows a student sitting in the seat with her backpack in her lap. Another student is turned backwards, propped up on her knees and holding the girl’s hair. She punches the girl across the face, and then says, “I gave you a chance – I gave you three chances to tell you what the f— you said about me and you didn’t say s—.”
“Yea, yea, white girl ain’t going to do s— about it,” another student in the background says.
So Jones and Landry, with the help of Jones’ mother Shannon Jones Bicket, started The Cloud Effect. The Facebook group currently has around 2,400 members. The discussion page includes posts about bullying along with inspirational quotes, articles and videos.
Bickett started researching bullying, and one study stood out to her in particular.
“If the victim goes and tattles, tells the teacher and the teacher calls the bully in and says ‘Hey, be nice to the victim,’ usually the bully is meaner to the victim for tattling,” Bickett recalled.
“On the other hand, almost 60 percent of the bullying stopped if another kid interrupts and says ‘Hey, y’all leave him alone,’ ” she said. “It’s just trying to get kids to speak up for other kids.”
Jones, Bickett’s daughter, said she hopes the group will encourage kids to practice some kindness.
“All it takes is a little kindness to make someone’s day brighter. You never know what someone is going through,” she said.
The girls also make appearances at events where they hand out shirts or wristbands in the stands to raise awareness of their cause. Jones also recently spoke about The Cloud Effect at a community event involving a basketball game between students and Gulfport police officers, and the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department has listed The Cloud Effect as a community partner.
This summer, the girls will speak at the Boys & Girls Club in D’Iberville.
“Who knows how far this can go?” Bickett said.
Bullying concerns in the district and statewide
Harrison County School District recently received media attention after two students at Harrison Central High School committed suicide within weeks of one another. The speculation about why, and whether bullying was involved, began immediately. Social media comments on stories done by local TV stations soared, with district students, parents and others commenting about their experiences.
However, Superintendent Roy Gill said the school found no evidence the suicides were linked to bullying. One of the student’s parents said they were not sure whether bullying had played a part in their son’s suicide but had only heard from other students that he was bullied.
Gill does not believe bullying is any more of an issue in his district than others. And data shows the number of bullying incidents in the district is low. The highest number of bullying incidents reported in the last five years in the district of almost 15,000 students (the fourth largest district in the state) was four in the 2013-2014 school year.
In comparison to the two districts most akin to Harrison in size, Harrison’s numbers are very low. Rankin Co. School District, which has an enrollment of around 19,000 students, saw 13 incidents of bullying in the most recent school year. Madison County School District, which is slightly smaller than Harrison with around 14,000 students, reported 25 incidents in 2015-2016, the most recent year for which data was available.
State education officials do not keep track of bullying incidents across the state.
Mariah Davis, a junior at Harrison Central High School, believes there are some things about her school that make bullying and conflict more likely.
“I have some cousins that go to George County, but I don’t really hear (about it) up there. Up there it’s kind of a more friendly place — a small little town and everybody knows everybody,” she described. “Down here we’re so culturally diverse I guess you could say, so it does happen a little bit worse than other places.”
Davis, who went to D’Iberville High School for her freshman year and the first semester of her sophomore year, said she experienced “major, major bullying” there and was homeschooled for a period of time. A fellow classmate, with whom she shared several of the same classes, constantly called her vulgar names.
The school eventually switched Davis from three of her classes which she said resulted in her getting behind.
“I was in her first period class and they moved me to the 4th period, and they were way behind (where the first period class had been),” Davis recalled. “I’m just sitting in class like ‘I don’t need to know this stuff,’ when really they should’ve moved her (the student bullying her). She was the one doing wrong.”
Jones’ mother Shannon Jones Bickett expressed concern along those same lines. Often, she said, both students involved will be suspended after an altercation.
“I don’t think it’s fair for a child to be suspended or punished in any way for defending themselves,” she said. “They (the school district) are not doing enough to investigate from the get-go.”
Davis’ story and Bickett’s concerns illustrate one aspect of what prompted the Legislature this session to add language to the law protecting students who defend themselves from bullying.
Beginning this school year, each school district shall ensure it has policies that prohibits any disciplinary action taken against a student who, after investigation, “is found to be a victim of bullying, on the basis of that student’s use of reasonable self-defense in response to the bullying.”
House Bill 263 goes on to state that the policies must “recognize the fundamental right of every student to take reasonable actions as may be necessary to defend him or herself from an attack by another student who has evidenced menacing or threatening behavior through bullying or harassing.”
Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, was one of the authors of House Bill 263. He began researching laws after being contacted by parents with concerns about how the victims of bullying were being treated by the schools.
“It’s almost like the one being bullied was being accused of doing something and they hadn’t done anything,” Boyd described.
He modeled the bill after Kentucky’s law, which is highly regarded, he said.
“It gives someone being bullied the right to use reasonable self defense — not to attack somebody but to defend themselves, and that has never been the case before in Mississippi,” he said. “I just feel like it was something that was necessary for our school kids and for our teachers.”
Districts must adopt the requirements of the bill in the upcoming school year.
Gill points out it’s important to differentiate bullying from other incidents. Bullying is not defined as an isolated incident of teasing or physical contact but as a repeated pattern of unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a “real or perceived power imbalance,” according to stopbullying.gov.
State law provides more specifics of bullying, such as an act that places a student in fear of harm and creates a hostile environment by interfering with a student’s educational experiences, among other circumstances.
Gill said handling and reporting bullying is already part of teacher and staff’s professional development in the district.