Last week, when Summer Smith, Plano mother of 13-year-old SeMarion Humphrey, posted videos and screenshots of Haggard Middle School football players bullying her son on Facebook, it was because she was out of ideas.
She had just discovered that a group of boys at SeMarion’s school had been harassing him for over a year. They called him racial slurs, and beat him with a belt in the boy’s locker room. SeMarion was so miserable, he quit the football team that he loved. Then, in December, one of them had befriended him and invited him to a sleepover, only to then invite his bullies over. That night, they shot him with a BB gun, slapped him, and made him drink their urine.
Horrified, Smith called the school, and the superintendent’s office. But because some events took place off campus, Plano Independent School District (PISD) school board initially told her there was nothing they could do about the bullying. She couldn't get a meeting with the superintendent.
“I spent the whole day Tuesday calling attorneys, but as soon as I said, ‘school board, they said they couldn’t help. One reporter said, ‘I’ll let you know.’ I thought on Tuesday about putting that video on Facebook,” she recounted to members of the press Saturday, standing in front of the police station. But she had a video, which SeMarion's bullies had spread through the school, of him drinking their urine. “I couldn’t watch the video at first. Then I said, ‘People need to see this. I want everyone to see what they thought was funny.’ They are laughing. All of them.”
By Friday, however, everyone was listening. A petition, launched by SeMarion's sister, gathered signatures by the thousands. Suddenly, stories poured in from former PISD students, more tales of bullying and abuse under the administration’s nose. Her son’s name became a rallying cry: #JusticeForSeMarion.
Tuesday, March 9, a week later, Smith finally sat down with attorneys, activists, and PISD Superintendent Sara Bonser for a two-hour meeting.
Afterward, Dominique Alexander of Next Generation Action Network, addressed the press after the meeting in front of the Cox Building near downtown Plano, and said the conversation left them all hopeful. He describes an honest discussion about racism and bigotry in schools.
Alexander clarified that they did not consider the attacks on SeMarion simply bullying, and to call it that is to “underestimate the severity of what SeMarion went through.” While it started as bullying, it escalated to racially-motivated assaults that constitute a hate crime.
They also provided the district with a list of demands:
- Expulsion for every student involved that committed such heinous acts against SeMarion Humphrey.
- Plano ISD will make a public apology to SeMarion Humphrey and his mother Summer Smith acknowledging the racist motivation behind these acts. Plano ISD to make a commitment to both recognizing and dismantling systemic racism within the school district.
- Board President to call a special board meeting regarding past and present bullying incidents addressing this ongoing issue within PISD.
- Enforce ISD policies that teach students, teachers, and administrators how to identify, prevent, and report acts of bigotry, bullying, and sexual harassment.
- An established guideline for reporting cyberbullying, and defined consequences for teachers and administration that fail to follow policy.
- Require all campuses to employ a Restorative Discipline Coordinator trained by TEA or other credentialed program.
- As football was a catalyst to this behavior, all perpetrators should be expelled from interscholastic sports and continue after school suspension.
“We want these policies implemented. We want to work and sit at the table with them,” Alexander said. “The Superintendent has looked us in the eye and committed to these things. We will give her staff the opportunity to do it. Protests won’t cease until action are done.”
The family’s attorney Kim Cole said that somewhere in the district workings, there must be a breakdown of processes. No one wants students to be bullied, much less become the targets of hate crimes. The district says they don’t tolerate bullying in Plano schools—and yet, sometimes they simply aren’t getting the message. For example, SeMarion went to his coach after his teammates beat him with a belt in the boy’s locker room, and did not receive help.
“Our understanding is that it was Coach Dupree that delivered the sentiment that boys will be boys, get tougher skin, get thicker skin,” the family’s crisis manager, K.C. Fox, said after the meeting. “That was one of the main points I was hammering on—lack of integrity inside the school leadership, from the assistant principal to the coach. Everyone who had awareness—we need to know what were the steps they took, what were the actionable items. It’s pending investigation.”
But teachers from Haggard and PISD schools have also reached out to Smith and her team, saying that they had in the past reported bullying. Somewhere along the way, sometimes, the message gets lost.
In the meeting, Cole said she acknowledged that PISD might be worried about its reputation, but Superintendent Bonser stopped her. “It doesn’t matter,” she told Cole. “We want to know.”
As a result, Cole announced that she has offered to compile accounts of bullying from the community to help identify the gaps where students are falling through. In cases like SeMarion’s, where she argues that bullying has turned into criminal activity, she has personally offered to gather information for the district to follow up on.
For Smith, the process has been incredibly draining for her and SeMarion. Her goal was never to become an advocate for anti-bullying and anti-racism in Plano schools. She only wanted to protect her son.
“This was more than bullying,” Smith said. “No ‘boys will be boys.’ We’ve heard enough of that. … The things they did to my son in his sleep, defenseless—it was assault. Assault with bodily fluid. Assault with hands. It was assault, and it’s being pursued to the full extent of the law.”
Furthermore, Smith has suffered attacks on her character and ability as a mother. Their family even had to move out of their own house after someone left a watermelon in front of their house. She and her daughter, not to mention SeMarion, have been threatened. The district has also received threats.
“I really am trying not to break down in front of the press,” she confessed, adding that she's had nightmares for three nights straight. “Everyone keeps asking me if I'm okay. No, I am not okay. Not by a longshot. I'm whatever the opposite of okay is.”
In the days past, hundreds of students have shared their own stories of bullying that went unaddressed. Parents have contacted her, saying that their child experienced harassment or bullying. If they had pursued the issue, some have said, perhaps SeMarion would have been spared. She acknowledged that SeMarion’s story has brought light to a long-hidden problem.
Smith adds that she is grateful for the meeting. At the end of it, Bonser gave Smith her personal cell phone number. But the fight to end bullying in Plano schools is only just beginning.
“Who wants their child to be a hashtag?” Smith asked. “I definitely did not want — and never dreamed — my child would be a hashtag. However, my son is so strong that he has said ‘I'm speaking out for everybody. I want to tell my story to everyone who will listen.’” she said proudly. “He is strong and for that I am strong.”