By ROGER MOONEY
Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.
There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.
Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.
Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.
Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.
Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.
Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.
The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.
“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”
He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.
His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.
“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”
Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”
Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.
“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”
What stopped him?
“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”
For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.
“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”
His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.
“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.
So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.
“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”
Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.
Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship. For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.
Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.
“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”
The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.
“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.
While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.
“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”
Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.
He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.
Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.
That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.
While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.
“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”
If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
Linzi Morris said she didn’t have a framework for her children’s education when she applied for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2005. She just wanted to move two of her sons from their district school to Academy Prep Center in Tampa, a private middle school with high academic standards.
“When they’re little, you’re thinking about them getting a good education so they can do well in life. I didn’t have an exact roadmap of how we were going to get there,” Linzi said. “These schools which are funded by the (Step Up For Students) scholarships helped show us what was available so we could get that roadmap and it would be an attainable thing and not just a dream.”
William is also 25. He has a degree in biology and is currently serving in the United States Army and stationed in Georgia. His plan is to attend medical school. An income-based scholarship from Step Up figured prominently in his life.
Next in the family is Nanya. He is 23 and will graduate this December from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. In January, he is scheduled to begin a job at General Electric in its environmental, health and safety division. Like his brothers, Nanya benefited from an income-based scholarship from Step Up.
Notice a trend here?
From a private middle school to private high schools to college to careers. That is the roadmap followed by each of Linzi’s children. Because after Nanya came Linzi’s daughter Hera, 21, who will graduate Florida A&M in Tallahassee in the spring with a degree in food science, and daughter Saliyha, 17, a senior at Tampa Catholic, and son Qinniun, 15, a sophomore at Tampa Catholic.
Six children. Six bright futures.
“Without Step Up I don’t know if I would be able to reach the goals I’m about to reach,” Nanya said.
Dwight (a University of South Florida graduate), William (University of Central Florida) and Nanya attended Jesuit High, an all-male school in Tampa. Hera, like her younger siblings, attended coed Tampa Catholic.
Hera, who is on a softball scholarship at FAMU, remembered how her friends used to question her academic path, wondering why Hera’s mom would send her to Academy Prep, which has 11-hour school days, 11 months of the year.
Her response? “How horrible of her for wanting me to get a great education and have a great future.”
Traversing the educational landscape
Education is important for Linzi, a single mother. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, but left after two years. She eventually attended a trade school and became certified as a medical assistant.
Dwight and William were sixth graders when Linzi learned of Academy Prep. The boys were good students, Linzi said, but she felt they weren’t being challenged academically at their district school.
She heard about Academy Prep from a friend and applied. That’s when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. At the time, the scholarship was just a few years old. This fall, it funded its one millionth scholarship.
“That’s one million opportunities,” Linzi said. “Everybody doesn’t use their opportunities. My kids will use their opportunities. I’ll make sure of it.”
It is a 40-minute drive from the family home in Tampa to Academy Prep. That meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call and a mad scramble to get the kids ready for the day. But Linzi said it was worth it, because her children were exposed to so much during their years there. They took sewing, etiquette and culinary classes. They studied law and film making; built rockets that flew and volcanoes that erupted.
“It kind of showed us what you want to be when you grow up,” Hera said. “You meet people. You have all these experiences.”
In sixth grade, she met a neurosurgeon and decided she wanted to be a brain surgeon. In eighth grade, a food scientist visited the school.
“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to do that.’ It was either neurosurgery or food science. I picked food science,” she said.
Hera is currently applying for internships in that field while hoping COVID-19 doesn’t wreak too much havoc with the spring softball season. She has been the Rattlers’ starting third baseman since she first stepped foot on campus as a freshman.
In addition to being an academically successful family, they are, as Linzi said, “a trash-talking family.” The kids brag about their test scores and grade point averages. Hera said she is motivated to land a job before graduation because Nanya already has one.
Yet, they are also a network of tutors. Those who excel in math and science are quick to lend their knowledge. Need help writing a paper? There are those in the family they can turn to.
Also, success leads to success. Dwight and William forged a path that none of the younger siblings want to stray from.
“I’m grateful for my family. They always pushed me,” Saliyha said. “Even if I don’t want to hear it, because, you know, teenager, they experienced it.”
Saliyha is deciding between attending Florida State and St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida. She wants to study restaurant management/hospitality.
“I really, really want to be a culinary artist,” she said. “I want to be a restaurant owner and a culinary artist. I want to go to college and get a degree in a field I want to do and then pursue a degree in culinary arts.”
Saliyha said she likes to be challenged in the kitchen. She likes to put her own twist on what she is making, even if it is a popular dish. She feels the same about her education.
“I’m really, really grateful for Step Up,” she said, “because they’ve allowed me to go to private schools, schools that are going to help me further my education and push me harder than I’ve ever been pushed so I can understand the world and that it’s not going to be easy and I have to work for everything.”
Saliyha followed the family roadmap. Academy Prep helped her get to Tampa Catholic. Tampa Catholic prepared her for college. College will prepare Saliyha for what? Owning her own restaurant?
“That’s the goal of the scholarship, to give you that push,” Linzi said. “I tell people the scholarship is one part, the school is another part, the parents are another part, but the biggest part is the kid. That child has to want it.
“I tell them because this is an opportunity where there are people who are basically paying for you to have this opportunity, you owe it to the people behind you not to mess it up.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Darius Cook wants to someday become an entrepreneur.
He isn’t sure yet what type of business he wants to run, but the outgoing recent graduate of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando said he feels confident that his communications skills will be used.
Cook, 18, is working as a cashier at Publix, while he waits to start classes at Valencia College in August. After completing two years at Valencia, he plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The costs will be covered, in part, by a tuition-reimbursement program at Publix.
His mother, Amy Cook, takes pride in her oldest son’s bright prospects. In 2008, as Darius prepared to enter fifth grade, the single mother of four worried he wasn’t getting a quality education at their neighborhood school.
“It was the worst of the worst,” she said. “My daughter went there, so I was kind of involved, but the environment and the other kids there were not nice kids. And there was no personalized attention. There was no art and music, just math and reading, and tutoring to pass the FCAT.”
At the day care center where her youngest children stayed, administrators told Cook about Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The program helps expand educational opportunities for lower-income children.
Cook was skeptical. She said she applied for the scholarship in 2008, mostly so the day care workers would stop “pushing me to sign up for it.”
She is now thankful for their perseverance.
“It wasn’t difficult; it was too good to be true,” said Cook, who works as a server at a local deli. “I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Thanks to the scholarship, Darius was enrolled at Saint Andrew Catholic School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in south Orlando.
“It’s literally in my backyard. I mean, we can literally jump the fence to get there,” Cook said. “And it is a (National) Blue Ribbon school. When Darius started going to Saint Andrew, I noticed how much of a better education he got than my (older) daughter. It’s a huge difference, especially among their peers. There’s no bullying. It’s friendly and a nice environment.”
Darius said the differences between Saint Andrew and the public school were obvious from Day One.
“It’s a more controlled learning environment,” he said. “The classes are smaller and the teachers are a lot more available to help you. Multiple times, I went in earlier in the morning and my math teacher came in early to tutor me, just because I asked her to.
“To this day, I feel close enough to go in and talk with them.”
Besides excelling in the classroom at Saint Andrew, Darius participated in soccer, volleyball, basketball and track.
“Darius was always a gifted communicator and leader in his class,” said Andy Sojourner, assistant principal at Saint Andrew. “I’ve seen him a few times since he graduated and gone onto the public high school. He talks about how much he valued his time here and wants to be involved in alumni (groups) in a leadership capacity.”
While Dr. Phillips High is a public school, Cook said that Saint Andrew helped Darius make a smooth transition.
“They really work on your individual needs,” she said. “The school’s eighth-grade class was small – 30 kids. Some of them went to another private high school. Darius and four other kids went to Dr. Phillips, and (Saint Andrew) did a very good job of preparing them.”
Cook’s youngest sons, A.J., 13, and Nicolas, 8, now attend Saint Andrew, thanks again to Step Up and the scholarship program.
According to Sojourner, A.J. is also a gifted student-athlete.
“He balances (sports and academics) really well,” Sojourner said. “Nicolas is a great young man. Their family is just very involved in the community. They’re always at our fundraisers and volunteering for activities at the school.”
Nowadays, when he isn’t working or studying, Darius said he most enjoys attending a local ping-pong club, where he takes lessons and competes against high-level players.
While his future aspirations are formulating, he has a general idea that his communications talents will come into play.
“At a young age it was cultivated that I had good skills in talking to people and handling situations,” he said. “I’ll find what’s best for me, based on my skill set.”
Geoff Fox is always looking to tell a great story about our scholarship programs. Have Step Up students, partner school, therapist, teacher or other related news you to see a story about? Please reach him at email@example.com.