LAND O'LAKES — Tears rolled down 10-year-old Jaylen Jackson's cheeks as he recounted the fear and humiliation he felt last week when five older boys bullied him in the school cafeteria.
"I was very scared," he said Thursday as he stood outside the school, Pine View Elementary. "There were five of them and one of me. … I felt like I was stuck and couldn't do anything."
The fifth-graders pushed the smaller fourth-grader and shoved a muffin into his mouth. But it was their words that outraged his father, Shawn Jackson, and led him to file a criminal complaint.
"This is a racial hate crime," Jackson said Thursday on his way to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. "I want my son to be safe at school."
Jaylen, who is African-American, said the five white boys laughed and called him "inappropriate names.'' They surrounded him and asked whether his grandmother was a slave. When he didn't respond, they threw paper and food at him.
Afterward, he went to class without saying anything to teachers. But when he got home, he told his family. His mother, Jenayssi Ramirez, reported the incident to assistant principal Tracy Hemingway on Monday.
Ramirez, who is studying to become a teacher, said she was upset that her son had been targeted in what seemed like a random incident of harassment at the school, where enrollment is 65 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic and 5 percent black. She wanted to give officials there a chance to respond. After reviewing the situation, the school disciplined all the boys who were involved.
The officials wouldn't give specifics about that discipline, but Jaylen's parents said the ringleader was suspended, another boy was given in-school suspension and the others were ordered to write letters of apology.
That satisfied Ramirez, who shares joint custody of Jaylen with his father.
"I feel that the school did their job as far as handling the situation," Ramirez said. "It's unfortunate that this could happen in this day and age. But I feel the school did what they could."
Jackson, who works the morning shift for UPS, was not so understanding. He wanted answers.
How could such bullying happen in a crowded school without any adults seeing it? Why were the bullies in school two days after the incident was reported?
Jackson also suggested that the penalties did nothing to address the root problem of bullying and racism with the students and their parents.
"There's been a lot of suicides of kids being bullied. Kids are afraid to come out" and talk about what happened to them, he said. "I want parents to be aware of what goes on in the schools … and what's being done by the schools."
District spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said the incident was handled promptly and according to School Board policy. She added that all schools have given instructions to students about bullying, how to report it, understanding what it is, and the consequences of failing to meet expectations.
That includes diversity awareness and lessons about respect for one another, she said. Teachers have received training in how to handle bullying as well, she said.
"The discipline was reviewed and found to be applied appropriately," Romagnoli said.
Jaylen said he bounced back from the bullying, in large part because the kids who did it got in trouble. But now he's more alert and aware it could happen again.
He offered advice for anyone else who faces a similar situation.
"Let them know to watch out, look over their shoulders, stand up for yourself," he said. "That's all I have to say."
It saddened both his parents that he had to learn such a lesson.
"It's pretty serious," Ramirez said. "We live in Pasco. We're minorities here. It's pretty threatening to a scrawny child, a fourth-grade little boy."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.