Rayar Johnson, the mother of four daughters in Wayne County, says her girls have been victims of racial bullying for going on close to a decade. "They've been called the N-word. It's been documented where I begged for help," Johnson said. "I get 'It's been handled" or 'We'll take care of it.'"
Johnson is especially upset about one of the more serious incidents took place in February 2013, when a white classmate of one of Johnson's daughters brandished a knife, threatened to kill her and gave her a drawing of a swastika with the words "KKK" scrawled on it.
Wayne County School District Superintendent Ben Graves told the Wayne County News that "this issue was handled according to school policy and the state codes," but Johnson disagrees that the school performed its due diligence.
Mississippi law states that any student caught with a controlled substance, knife, gun, or other firearm capable of causing bodily harm will be subject to expulsion for one calendar year and allows students to appeal.
Johnson was unclear what punishment the accused bully received, but she got a clearer picture when her daughter reported the alleged bully was aboard the bus for the first day of school last month. Fearing for the girls' safety, Johnson formally withdrew her children from the district—for the second time since 2010—planning to home school them (she has since re-enrolled them).
Pastor Wade Demers, who lives in Meridian and works with New England-based social-justice organization Arm of Justice, arranged a meeting between Johnson and top district officials to encourage reconciliation between Johnson's daughter and the accused bully. " Jesus told us to have mercy," Demers said. "There's no reason to put this girl in jail for something she did."
Johnson agrees, calling expulsion and criminal prosecution of the accused bully "the death penalty" that could preclude the girl from completing her education.
Christopher Barry, a psychology professor and expert on bullying at the University of Southern Mississippi, said bullying is hard to define, but is typically characterized by a power differential and repetition.
"It is a very fuzzy line," Barry said.
Barry said that in addition to school enforcement, "observers" can play a large role by reporting bullying behavior.
At a Sept. 4 meeting, school-district officials stressed to Johnson that a new bullying policy was in place and explained why the accused bully did not receive the full year's expulsion.
"Even though the district expulsion committee had recommended that this student be expelled for a full calendar year, the superintendent determines the length of expulsion. Mr. Graves allowed this student's expulsion to be shortened based on her expressed remorse for her actions," states a written response that Graves, Deputy Superintendent R.P. Staten and Assistant Superintendent DeJuan Walley all signed.
Messages left for Wayne County School District officials were not been returned by press time.
Johnson appreciates receiving a formal letter that outlines concretes steps the district is taking, but she remains dubious—officials have made similar promises in the past.
"I was told I could press charges, but I don't want to press charges on (the accused bully)," Johnson said. "I want (her) to get help, and I don't want her to be around my children."