Making Strides: How a 14-year-old, her mom and her lawyers changed Duval County Schools
When I opened my own office, we thought we’d do more pro bono, take on more causes and champion the little guy such that we could give back to the community. When I met a 14-year-old girl named Aria Jewett and learned of the beating she had taken at the hands of another 14-year-old girl, it was easy to see Duval County Schools had a problem- violence and bullying in schools. Aria was lured off of campus one morning, a group of kids came running up as the lead bully had previously organized and they videotaped Paris Cannon beating her up. It apparently was the bully’s “thing,” as she was a “serial bully,” beating up other girls and uploading some of these videos to youtube.
Aria still suffers from the lasting effects of a brain injury. She was tormented by the distrust and fear of attack. And, so, we told her story. Locally, it got quite a bit of attention, then Fox News called, then the Today Show and Good Morning America called (although neither did the story), and then CBS Evening News came to town. Along the way, we achieved a landmark verdict- a judge banned the bully from Duval County Schools. It was ultimately overturned, but we handled the appeal and the court sent a message to the legislature- make laws which protect our children.
You can read that brief here- 1st DCA Opinion.
Aria made a difference. After her incident, a new tentative budget for the school district was approved. $24 million was added for security. That’s compared to just $3 million the year before. Yes, the school district added $21 million dollars more to make our schools safer. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, “I think schools are safer than the community believes,” and claimed, “We do have, I think, a perception issue,” but they spoke with actions. Additionally, a bullying hotline was added.
A PR campaign can change a perception issue for far less than $21 million. That kind of money says perception- is reality. While that was too little, too late for Aria Jewett and many other students who were victims of a dramatic rise of bullying and violence in schools, it is a good sign that Dr. Vitti and the Board took these matters seriously.
We continued to fight for bullied children, not just against the bullies, but against the system which fosters it.