Step up, Stop Bullying Blog: Jesse’s Story

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Five years ago I noticed a trend in the media as it pertained to bullying. The focus was more on the problem, rather than the solution. So I created my anti-bullying program, “Step Up, Stop Bullying.” 

I had no idea where it would go, if it would work or what kind of impact it might have… but I knew I needed to do something to help. The first presentation I did was in front of just 10 elementary school kids. My goal that day was to get through to just one of them and hopefully provide them with information on what to do when and if they encounter a bully. I have no idea if I succeeded, but I refused to give up. 

Fast forward. Over the past 5 years I have been to more than 200 schools across the state and talked to thousands of kids in elementary, middle and high school. The stories I hear, the emails I get at work, break my heart and tell me more work needs to be done. I am just one person. I am not an expert. But I do know that I can play a small role in helping kids better understand the dangers of bullying, the impact it can have and more importantly what to do to hopefully stop it.

So, beginning this month, I will be posting articles every other week written by me, parents, experts and students on bullying. Some of the articles will be emotional, informative… and maybe even fun. But the goal is simple. I want to educate Arkansans about the dangers of bullying, provide them with resources on where to go and what to do when a child is bullied. I need your help! I want your opinion and suggestions. Tell me what topics you want to learn more about… is it physical bullying, verbal or cyber-bullying? Do you want more information on a specific topic or where to go to find resources? Just send an email to me at kkelly@fox16.com.

I want to begin with a powerful and emotional testimony — written by Jennifer James. She is all too familiar with the dangers of bullying and the impact it can have. I applaud and commend both her and her husband for being willing to share the story of their son, Jesse. I strongly suggest every parent read this… not once, but twice. I also strongly suggest you share this story with other parents you know. And after reading it, please feel free to leave a comment, start a dialog and constructive conversation. Just be sure you’re sitting down while reading this:

Our story begins the morning of September 29, 2017 when our eldest son, Jesse, was missing from the house. For the first time in fourteen years, nine months, and twenty-nine days, the whereabouts of Jesse was unknown. That initial feeling of shock still resonates through us to this day.  I wrote “My Eloquence of Befall” a few days afterwards telling of this tragic experience.

My Eloquence of Befall 
On the morning of September 29, 2017, my worst nightmare became reality. My eldest son, Jesse, was not in his bed for me to wake.  He was nowhere to be found.  I searched before waking his father and then we searched together.  Heart pounding, waves of emotions, head spinning, and panic in full force. 
We notified the police to report him missing.  We search everywhere again.  They did their job well putting out the information and patrolling to find him.  We notified the officer at SHS.  He interviewed as many students as he could.  I am not sure what was said in any of these interviews, but no one spoke up to help.  I am certain the students were afraid of getting in trouble.  That is understandable for their age.  However, I know they have information, but will not share.  It is imperative they come forward with any knowledge without fear of ridicule.  My son was not a depressed person or at least he never showed any signs at home or anywhere away from school. 

As I searched his backpack, I found his leather bound book.  The words I read are indescribable for me to even begin to explain.  His words of torment at school tore through my heart.  He never let me know even though I gave him opportunity and encouragement to talk with his dad or me about anything bothering him.  His answer was always, “I’m fine mom, nothing is going on, stop worrying.” I simply said, “Ok, I love you, but my job is to protect you; just know we are here for you for any reason.”
After reading his words of pain, I collapsed and my whole world went black.  I knew right then my sunshine was gone.  Shock consumed me while life itself faded into a foggy haze of nothingness and time slowed into agonizing eternity. 

While family, friends, and authorities surrounded us, I stood there empty watching the helicopter, and officers do their jobs.  Nothing felt real; I felt everything and nothing at the same time. “How can this be happening,” continually repeated in my head with my heart pounding and my body shaking.  The world looked different like I was on another planet.  The breeze did not cool me, the birds were silent, and the cows were still as if frozen in time.  I held my breath, then rapidly lost control of my breathing. Moments felt like hours and hours felt never ending. “This is happening!” My mind finally realized. 

The moments that followed were so immensely suffocating and too hard for me to handle.  I was in a whirlwind of chaos and disbelief.  My heart exploded, my mind shut down, and my voice silenced.  Everyone was speaking words of kindness and love, but I could not process anything except the numbing pain that flooded my entire being. 

I just did not understand how such a beautiful life could be gone.  What happened to him to make this decision, why did he feel the need to leave, when did this begin, and how can it be true?  The questions continue without any answers. 

My precious, shy, handsome, funny, brilliant, loving, adventurous boy was no longer alive.  He was too good for the evils of this God forsaken place.  He was a treasure lost in a bunch of junk, a true diamond in the rough.  Those who knew him are the only ones that truly know the amazingly awesome Jesse. Those who did not know him or bullied him are the ones who missed out on a purely wonderful soul; their loss, not his for now he is at peace. 

We taught him to be an individual, to be proud of himself, to be unique and not follow the crowds of ignorance, and be who he wanted.  His talents went far beyond and above the average kids of his age. However, the peer pressures took the best of him and stole his self worth.   

My life will forever be empty.  The Jennifer I once was died with Jesse.  I will never fill the void I feel now.  I am so angry, grief stricken, and heartbroken.  My focus now is my son Jonas, my husband Jeremy, and a ferocious desire to prevent any other child to feel like Jesse felt.  School is a place of safety, a place parents trust their children to be protected.  As a teacher myself, I see first hand the flaws in education.  A school and teacher’s top priority must be the well-being of the students, then academic scores. 

Life is too short for us all.  My story could happen to anyone at any given time. Jesse will forever be in my heart and mind.  I love you always my awesome first-born son Jesse Dylan James.  
 
Jennifer Marie James

The months that followed were filled with gut wrenching agony as I delve deep into Jesse’s online gaming chat site known as Discord. This is where I discovered numerous demoralized chats between Jesse and “peers.” All we have are the text conversations of Jesse with others, but all verbal exchange he took with him.  We will never know the full story. He never once told us of anything to cause concern and protected those who were speaking to him inappropriately. He felt that he could fix things on his own and did not want to jeopardize any friendships. These encounters took a toll after so long of ridicule and pressure.  

Many things changed in Jesse’s circle of friends once hormones took hold. Jesse began to realize what a “fair weather” friend was like and he grew tired of being used up then tossed aside. Jesse felt trapped at school, obeying the rules, meeting friend’s expectations, following trends, the behaviors around him, the negative conversations, puberty, and girls. He told online how he felt, but he only received negative responses. Those Jesse told did one of three things: disregarded his comment, made fun of him for feeling the way he did, or told him to go ahead. This destroyed Jesse’s self-esteem and broke his spirit. I received several statements from those online that he chatted with telling me how sorry they were and they thought he was joking. None of them took it seriously and that disregard bothers me to the very core of my being. How can a person blatantly ignore a friend in need, a friend reaching out, and a friend who has helped them with things in the past?  This is outrageous for such a young age.  

Today’s children have lost that social face-to-face connection with each other and express little to no empathy for others. Toxic friendships make people feel left out, ridiculed, manipulated, feel peer pressure, and experience the inability to meet others expectations. Our future is our children and my family’s future is forever lost with Jesse because of the lack of knowledge of how to help when a friend shows signs of despair. In order to raise awareness of all I had discovered, I wrote the following letter to share at another anti-bully event and read for us by a member of Baca (Bikers Against Child Abuse). 

To Whom It May Concern:   
We are Jeremy and Jennifer James from Searcy, Arkansas and this is our story to share for raising awareness about bullying and suicide. Our hope is to proactively educate others of the things we have learned through our experience. 

On September 29, 2017, our eldest son, Jesse Dylan James, took his life due to being demoralized through verbal and emotional bullying both at school and online. He left a handwritten letter in his backpack revealing the truth he kept secret from his family. His words described his feelings of worthlessness and the torment he endured being made fun of and used up by peers, which led to a loss of self-esteem.  

We were in complete shock and unaware of any of these things. Our son had many friends and always seemed happy with the occasional typical adolescent moments of moodiness. However, he did not share with us what he was going through even though we asked questions about how things were going within his life.  We are still struggling with what happened and how he kept these feelings hidden from us. We have figured out at least one answer and it is time to share what we have learned.

Jesse did talk to us about a couple of things that bothered him while never insinuating an issue with bullying, which now we believe he was protecting his friends and himself from getting into trouble. He asked us questions about himself in which we gave the best advice parents could give, but as a young teenager, his peers made a bigger impact on him than his parents.  

Over time, these things overtook him, forcing our happy, and laidback boy to feel things he had never felt before and face realizations that many do not until adulthood. His spirit was shattered and self-worth stolen by negativity from peers both local and afar. Later, we discovered a language that he and his peers engaged in real life and online that they kept (keep) hidden from adults.  

They use phrases referencing suicide in a nonchalant manner within daily conversations by telling one another to “kill yourself” (“kys”) or “just die” when discussing ways to overcome feelings and social obstacles within their day. These utterances are a negative approach to dealing with typical teenage issues of acceptance and sought out encouragement from peers. Hearing constant comments to suicide as a response from friends when reaching out for help is extremely damaging to a developing teen. The mind begins to focus only on those negative responses and hopelessness will set into their self-consciousness. Our son, like most teenagers, looks toward friends for support or advice when they are struggling to deal with hormonal emotions and believe that adults do not understand what they are experiencing.   

It is typical for teenagers to go through a spell of thinking that adults do not know anything about teenage issues. We remember thinking this about our parents; so, we did speak to Jesse about feeling that way towards us. However, suicidal remarks are not a typical response from peers that we were aware was happening. We are certain other parents in our community and beyond are as unaware as we were to the negative language our teenagers engage in secretly under our noses. How, when, where, and why did suicidal statements enter our children’s vocabulary as a response to support or to deal with such typical teenage matters?  

We never heard Jesse or anyone say such things or even saw such phrasing while monitoring online use until after his death. Of course, our generation is not as computer savvy as their generation, which makes hiding online usage easy. Jesse knew how to bypass parental controls and only showed us what he wanted us to see in order to keep his computer privileges.   

Our discovery of this socially accepted use of negative and suicidal comments within daily speech amongst teenagers brings a better understanding and awareness for the community to help prevent others from experiencing the same fate we are enduring. Demoralizing one another is everywhere within our society as a whole. The only way to stop or minimize demoralization is to bring attention of its existence and the extreme life-damaging dangers it causes within our youth. Furthermore, creates discussion for ways to help those that are hurting from demoralization. Medication does not affect these types of feelings and many go misdiagnosed as depressed. Our son self-diagnosed his feelings as depression, but he neither told us he felt this way nor gave us reason to believe that he was depressed.

It is becoming more difficult to keep our children gold in today’s world. All we can do is start with what we know and spread the word for everyone to learn. Hearing our story of discovering one cause behind the loss of our teenage son, Jesse Dylan James, will save other lives.

Thank you for sharing,
Jeremy and Jennifer M. James 

A few quotes Jesse made online that really stood out to us:

  • “When I talk to my friends we’re just really mean to each other or we team up to be mean to someone else.” ~Jesse James
  • “I’m skinny and people think it’s fine to say, “you’re so skinny, don’t you eat,” but if I say, “you’re so fat, do you eat all the time,” I’d be a jerk!” ~ Jesse James
  • “Egos are dangerous, morphing and changing us especially when we’re online.” ~Jesse James

Quote from a peer of Jesse’s sent after his death:

  • “He joked about suicide a lot. It’s become a common thing to do online. People say, “Kill yourself” as a joke. There’s even a joke going around that dishwasher soap is tasty and we should try it. When we’re exposed to so many references to suicide and self-harm, it’s hard to tell what is a joke and what isn’t. That’s why we thought he was joking around. I’m very sorry. He will be missed.”  ~Unknown peer

While I monitored Jesse’s time online, he made sure to only let me see what he wanted and was quick to change conversations without my noticing. We followed all the recommended ways to ensure online safety by talking to him about the dangers of people whom he did not know personally, the computer is in a central place in the house, and we limited his time online. He followed the rules most of the time and made us believe he was only talking to people he knew. However, all the while, he knew that we were not as knowledgeable as he was about the computer. This is a problem that our generation is experiencing with our children. The kids today know so much more since they have grown up in this fast pace technology world with everything on a screen. Us parents have not learned as easily and are constantly trying to catch up.  

Our desire is to share information within our community and grow to others to ensure that children and parents know and understand what to do and how to help in such critical situations. The schools are in a unique position to witness interactions between students and to carry out positive social relationships where parents cannot be present; as well as, provide appropriate programs and speakers about bullying and suicide within the school environment. The best way to help end this growing epidemic is to talk about it, acknowledge bullying as a problem, and encouragement to seek help. The stigmas surrounding bullying and suicide have to end in order for these issues to improve.   

After the tragic loss of our son, Jesse, we established the Jesse Dylan James Foundation to raise awareness about bullying and suicide. The foundation’s mission is to educate and raise awareness about the damaging effects of peer pressure, bullying, and cyber relations to help prevent teenage suicide.  Our story, Jesse’s story, will save a life.  

Jennifer and Jeremy James

Click here for information on the Jesse Dylan James Foundation.

Kevin Kelly leads Fox16’s Step Up, Stop Bullying initiative, which debuted in 2013.

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