From bullying victim to valedictorian
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on July 18, 2016. It’s an interesting look at how bullying affects education. Florida lawmakers are debating a bill that would create a new initiative, called the Hope Scholarship, to aid those students who are bullied in Florida schools. (The School of Immaculata mentioned in this story has since closed.)
By JEFF BARLIS
It would have been hard to picture Jasmine Harrington as a class valedictorian in 2012. As a ninth-grader at her south Pinellas County neighborhood high school, she was routinely physically and emotionally attacked by her classmates, and her misery was reflected in a GPA of 0.625.
Until eighth grade, she had been a good student who enjoyed school. Then the nightmare began.
“I went through a terrible middle school experience,” Jasmine said. “Then it followed me into my ninth grade year. I figured ‘We’re in high school now, everyone will let it go.’ But I had the wrong people around me at the wrong times.”
Jasmine’s mother, Angela Little, was spending more and more time at the school pleading Jasmine’s case to teachers, administrators and resource officers. She was irate and feeling hopeless.
“[Jasmine] made it the first year,” Angela recalled, “only because every day I had to be there 10-15 minutes before school let out, standing immediately right there as she walks out to make sure five or six of them didn’t pummel her.”
“The cyberbullying was horrible. I had to see all this stuff that was on Facebook and in text messages, and I reported all of that to the school.”
Angela followed the school’s procedures and filed complaints. She even went to the homes of parents whose children were involved. Nothing changed Jasmine’s plight.
“I kept continuously getting in trouble and continuously arguing with the same people,” Jasmine said.
“It was extremely hard (to focus on school). No teacher, not one of them, could control their class.”
“I never learned. I literally would skip class all day and no one would care.”
Angela knew where Jasmine was headed.
“I was a mother at 16 and I always said I wasn’t going to let that cycle continue,” Angela said. “I had to remove her or she was going to be at risk of being a dropout.”
Angela heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from another mother whose daughter had been down a similar road. It gives low-income parents the power to access private schools.
Jasmine enrolled in Bethel Community Christian School for her 10th grade year. It was just a mile and a half from her neighborhood school, but it felt like a world apart.
Her grades rebounded to A’s, B’s and C’s as teachers and school officials, like administrator Cleopatra Sykes, worked with Jasmine to recover her lost credits.
“She came to us kind of shut down,” Sykes said. “She had a lot of self-esteem issues.”
Jasmine’s time at Bethel was short, however. After just two quarters, Jasmine was on the move again when the school was forced to close its secondary education program because of staffing and financial issues.
Bethel director Rev. Manuel Sykes reached out to John Giotis, headmaster at nearby School of the Immaculata, to place several students. Jasmine knew on her first visit she had found a home.
The campus with its open space and tranquil pond provided the perfect setting to forget about her past troubles. It was safe, quiet. But it was the staff at Immaculata that made all the difference.
“They were very comforting,” she said. “They let me know that I would make it in life.”
It took some time to win Jasmine’s trust, but Giotis and school dean Jennifer Givens believed in her, supported her, and challenged her.
“When she saw that she just wasn’t another number, that she could succeed, she just took off from there,” Givens said. “We began to see a big change in her. She was smiling more, more involved in activities and with other students.”
“At first she kind of stayed to herself. But after she felt that comfort zone, that she could talk to the teachers, once she saw that school was fun and we cared about her, it was just a new Jasmine, just a new child.”
Jasmine became a star student. Her A’s, B’s and C’s turned into mostly A’s. She began to ask for more work – independent studies and college preparation.
The culmination of Jasmine’s turnaround came a few weeks ago. She graduated as her class valedictorian and was accepted into St. Petersburg College, where she plans to study education and become a teacher.
When Givens told Jasmine she had been nominated to be the valedictorian, it was all Jasmine could talk about for weeks.
“I bugged my mom every day to go get that valedictorian sash,” she said. “And I bugged her to go buy me a new cap and gown, because I wanted my own. My mom got two sets of graduation pictures done for me.”
One of the graduation pictures Jasmine took was with her mother, both wearing caps and gowns. That’s because Jasmine won’t be the first in her family to go to college or get a degree.
Angela is also a full-time student at St. Pete College. She’s one semester away from graduating with an associate’s degree in social work after previously working as a seasonal tax preparer for H&R Block.
After getting her GED at age 32, Angela never stopped striving to set an example for her three children.
“She’s very inspiring to me,” Jasmine said of her mother. “I’m glad that she never gave up and that she went back to school.”
“When she graduates, I’ll be there to scream her name just as she did for me.”
Reach Jeff Barlis at firstname.lastname@example.org.