Bullied Girl With Cerebral Palsy Speaks Out
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"If I don't tell now, what would happen?"
Those were the tearful words of a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy whose father stormed a Florida school bus last month, threatening children who had been bullying her.
Appearing this morning on NBC's "Today" with her parents, the girl, Chatari Jones, tells cohost Matt Lauer she was worried about the bullying for a week before her father boarded that bus. However, she says she was afraid the situation would just get worse if she didn't tell her parents.
Although Jones had begun to shut down emotionally just days after starting sixth grade, her dad, James Willie Jones, says it wasn't until he waited for the school bus with his daughter on Sept. 3 that she finally admitted students on the bus were making her life a living hell, "Today" reports.
"As the involved parent of a child who suffers from cerebral palsy, it broke my heart," James Jones says in a statement released today to the Associated Press. "When I walked my daughter to the bus that morning, she broke down in tears and finally told me about the bullies who had tormented her on the school bus. She was afraid."
James Jones tells Lauer he didn't intend to "go ballistic" on the alleged bullies, but when the bus pulled up to the curb, he witnessed "a bus gone wild."
"I'm thinking, I'm going to talk to the bus driver; that was my initial intent," he tells Lauer. "(But) I'm seeing the bus coming 20 minutes late, people just yelling and arguing and hanging out of the windows. It was chaos -- no control. And I was like, 'How am I supposed to put my daughter, standing here crying, on this bus?' "
And that, James Jones says, is when things happened. Video surveillance from the bus shows him asking Chatari to point out the kids accused of harassing her, and he is then heard threatening those who would bully his daughter and the driver in a tirade that includes a flood of expletives.
Though she started the "Today" interview with a smile, Chatari Jones broke down in tears when sharing some of what she had to endure on the bus.
"They would poke me with pens, call me all kinds of names, spit in my hair, and condoms were being thrown on the bus," the girl says, sobbing.
In the deputy's report, James Jones alleges that school boys had placed an open condom on Chatari's head, smacked her on the back of the head, twisted her ear and shouted rude comments, according to an earlier "Today" segment.
Six days after the confrontation, James Jones was arrested and has since been charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing a school function. He was released after posting a $2,000 bail, and has been ordered to stay away from the bus driver and county school buses.
James Jones has publicly apologized for his outburst, saying "I made a mistake and I'm trying to pay for that." But at the same time, "Today" reports, the incident has brought national attention to the subject of school bullying, and the dad has become a bit of a folk hero for refusing to put up with bullies abusing his daughter.
Twenty-five percent of all students say they're bullied on a weekly or daily basis, according to National Center for Education Statistics; but for children with disabilities, 85 percent say they've been targeted, "Today" reports.
"Kids with disabilities are often times targeted by bullying because of their vulnerable reaction to the behavior," Julie Hertzog, director of the National Center for Bullying Prevention, tells "Today." "Whether it's getting mad, or getting scared or getting angry, they're providing a response that makes the person bullying feel in power and in control."
James Jones says the situation is "unacceptable because nobody knows what me and my wife went through with her ... the days in the hospital with her. We kept her back a year out of school for one year not to have to go through this, and we're still stuck with this. ... I'm just an average dad, protecting his daughter. And that's it ... They don't even know the pain we're going through -- it turned my world upside down."
That pain has also turned Chatari Jones' world upside down; after seeing the tape of the episode on the school bus, she became so racked with guilt for getting her father into trouble, that she was hospitalized for a week with stress, "Today" reports.
Chatari Jones has not been back to school since the day of the bus incident -- she is currently being home schooled. But she tells Lauer she wants to return.
"I do want to go back," she says. When Lauer asks if she believes things will be different now, the girl tearfully replies, "No, but I would like to get on the bus again."
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.