James Willie Jones and his wife Deborah became worried when they saw their daughter Chatari shutting down emotionally just days into her sixth-grade year at Greenwood Lakes Middle School in Florida.
It wasn’t until Jones waited for the school bus with his daughter on Sept. 3 that she finally came clean about her troubles — other students on her bus were making her life a living hell. They twisted her ears, smacked the back of her head and relentlessly taunted her with verbal abuse, some of it sexually explicit.
What followed turned not only a school district upside down, but put a new nationwide focus on the subject of school bullying: Dad James entered the bus that day and tore into his daughter’s alleged tormentors with a series of expletive-laden threats that eventually led to his arrest.
Out of controlAppearing with Deborah and Chatari on TODAY Monday, Jones told Matt Lauer it wasn’t his initial intent to go ballistic on the alleged bullies, but when the vehicle pulled up to the curb, he witnessed a bus gone wild.
“I’m thinking, I’m going to talk to the bus driver; that was my initial intent,” Jones said. “[But] I’m seeing the bus coming 20 minutes late, people just yelling and arguing and hanging out of the windows. It was chaos — no control. And I was like, ‘How am I supposed to put my daughter, standing here crying, on this bus?’ ”
Chatari’s lingering pain was evident on national TV. While she tried to keep a smile on her face during the interview, she broke down sobbing when Lauer asked if she could detail some of what she had to put up with on the bus. “They would poke me with pens, call me all kinds of names, spit in my hair, and condoms were being thrown on the bus,” the 12-year-old said.
She told Lauer she had tried to suffer in silence, but finally confided in her dad because, “If I don’t tell now, what would happen?” Trouble was, the situation exploded after Jones’ tirade was caught on the bus surveillance tape.
News media aired the tape, reporters started visiting their house, and six days after the incident, police showed up as well. They arrested Jones on two misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and disturbing a school function. If convicted on both, he could face up to four months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Jones has publicly apologized for his outburst, saying, “I made a mistake and I’m trying to pay for that.” But at the same time, he’s become a bit of a folk hero for being a dad who wasn’t going to put up with bullies abusing his daughter.
‘Just an average dad’Jones told Lauer of Chatari’s challenges. Her older sister was a popular cheerleader and athlete at the middle school, but then went on to another school and was no longer around to protect Chatari on the school bus. What’s more, Chatari suffers from cerebral palsy.
Choking back tears, Jones said: “Nobody knows what me and my wife went through with her, the days in the hospital with her.
“We kept her back out of school for one year, to not go through this, and we’re still stuck with this,” he added. “I’m just an average dad protecting his daughter. That’s it. They don’t even know the pain we are going through. It turned my whole world upside down.”
It turned Chatari’s world upside down as well. She saw the tape of Jones’ confrontation with the alleged bullies, and became racked with guilt that she had gotten her father into trouble. Her mother Deborah said in the days after the incident, she saw Chatari “getting to the point of no return.” She was eventually hospitalized for a week with stress.
Chatari has not been back to school since the day of the bus incident. School district officials, who have said James was wrong for not coming to them before taking the matter into his own hands, have arranged home-schooling. But Chatari told Lauer she still plans to return.
“I do want to go back,” she said. When Lauer asked whether she believes the situation would be different now, she replied quietly, “No. But I would like to get on the bus again.”
Appearing with the family on TODAY, attorney Natalie Jackson told Lauer she’s discussing a plea deal with prosecutors, but her biggest concern is her client’s being imprisoned.
“The problem with cases like these is that he could spend some jail time, and for a family that is living paycheck to paycheck, jail time can devastate the family,” she said.