Keaton Jones, a student in Maynardville, Tenn., sparked a national conversation about bullying after a video of him went viral over the weekend. After his video went viral, celebs went to social media to stand with Keaton
MAYNARDVILLE, Tenn. — A middle school student’s video about being bullied in the lunchroom went viral over the weekend, leading to dozens of stories in national and international media outlets and calls for Union County Public Schools to do more to address bullying.
“I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before now, because I know several parents that have gone to the school with the same problem, and not just the middle school, but all the schools,” said Amanda Hensley, a parent with two students in the school district who said she is a neighbor of Horace Maynard Middle School student Keaton Jones.
“I know several people who have gone over there and it’s the same old story,” Hensley said. “Somebody’s going to end up getting hurt if they don’t get it under control.”
Jones’ video, in which he describes having milk poured on him and ham put down his clothes at lunch, was posted by his mother Kimberly Jones, on her Facebook page Friday.
The video prompted an outpouring of support from celebrities and athletes including Captain America actor Chris Evans; pop star Justin Bieber; actress Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things; Fox News host Sean Hannity; and rapper Snoop Dogg.
The story was documented in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Daily Mail of London and other outlets, and hundreds of people took to social media to express their support for Jones.
But the heartwarming story of a bullied East Tennessee boy who received support from around the world became more complicated Monday due to fake social media accounts and accusations of racism against the boy’s mother.
The video racked up more than 18 million views until Kimberly Jones made her Facebook account private early Monday amid intense scrutiny and mounting backlash.
The video has gone viral and celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Cardi B, Millie Bobby Brown, and Jaimi Alexander have reposted it commending Jones’ for his honesty.
“To fulfill our mission of educating all children in Union County Public Schools, we must provide an academic environment that is safe, civil and supportive,” said Director of Schools Jimmy Carter in a statement.
“We do not and will not tolerate bullying and have a policy in place that addresses conduct taking place on school grounds, at any school-sponsored activity, on school-supported transportation or at any official school bus stop.
“With any incident of bullying that is reported to our administrators, we follow the process of our policy and immediately investigate the alleged incidents. The privacy of all parties and witnesses to complaints will be respected in accordance with state and federal law.”
Horace Maynard Middle School Principal Greg Clay said he wasn’t aware of Jones being repeatedly bullied and that the incident described in the video had been resolved weeks ago.
“It’s not as rampant as the video would have you believe,” Clay said. “I can’t tell you what was done, but I can tell you action was taken with the children.”
‘Why do they bully?’
Kimberly Jones said in her original Facebook post that she picked her son up from school early Friday because he was afraid to go to lunch.
By Monday she had made her Facebook page private and did not respond to a message seeking comment.
“My kids are by no stretch perfect, and at home, he’s as all boy as they come, but by all accounts he’s good at school,” Kimberly Jones wrote in her Facebook post. “Talk to your kids. I’ve even had friends of mine tell me (their) kids were only nice to him to get him to mess with people. We all know how it feels to want to belong, but only a select few know how it really feels not to belong anywhere.”
In the video, Keaton, crying in the passenger seat, says, “Just out of curiosity, why do they bully? What’s the point of it? Why do you find joy in taking innocent people and finding a way to be mean to ’em? It’s not OK.”
Keaton said kids at school make fun of his nose, call him ugly and tell him he has no friends.
Jones, in another social media post on Oct. 18, described one such incident. At a birthday party, she wrote, another boy said he knew Keaton by his scars, one that “goes all the way across his face.”
Jones wrote that her son was born with a tumor.
“It’s not OK!” Keaton cried in his video. “People that are different don’t need to be criticized about it. It’s not their fault. But if you are made fun of, don’t let it bother you. They suck, I guess. Hard. But it will probably get better one day.”
As of Sunday evening, Keaton’s video had been shared more than 369,000 times on Facebook. His message resonated with an eclectic mix of celebrities, who responded by condemning bullying, sharing their own experiences and lauding Keaton for his courage.
Chris Evans invited Keaton and his mom to the premiere of the new Avengers movie in Los Angeles next year.
“Stay strong, Keaton,” Evans tweeted. “Don’t let them make you turn cold. I promise it gets better. While those punks at your school are deciding what kind of people they want to be in this world, how would you and your mom like to come to the Avengers premiere in LA next year?”
In a Saturday afternoon Facebook post, Jones responded to the outpouring of support for her son.
“Friends, overwhelmed is the understatement of the world right now. I love each of you for what you are doing,” she said, adding that she could not read or respond to all of the messages and invitations to join groups that had inundated her mailbox since the viral video.
“I’m humbled by the voice my boy has been given, but he’s still just a little boy, and he’s a little boy who desperately wants acceptance, that I have to try to find a way to navigate him through the difference in true acceptance and attention. I know God has His hand in this and I trust that the right things will happen in the right time. In the meantime, bear with us.”
A woman who identified herself as Keaton Jones’ sister on Twitter, Lakyn Jones, also did not respond to a request for comment Monday, though she was tweeting responses to allegations made on social media that her mother had posted racist sentiments in the past.
“My mother is not in anyway [sic] a racist. I can assure you of that. She is just a strong southern woman,” Lakyn Jones tweeted.
My mother is not in anyway a racist. I can assure you of that. She is just a strong southern woman
— Lakyn 🎄 (@Lakyn_Jones) December 11, 2017
The controversy centers in part on screenshots of alleged Facebook posts by Kimberly Jones that Internet users said they captured before she made her account private.
The posts rail against Americans who are seen as protesting the American flag and contain pictures showing family members holding the Confederate flag. Keaton appears in one photo, holding an American flag and standing next to another boy who is holding a Confederate flag.
Some called Kimberly Jones’ alleged post racist and said they no longer had sympathy for Keaton. Others said the mother’s alleged views did not color their opinions of the son and his anti-bullying message.
The USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee has been unable to reach Keaton or Kimberly Jones for comment. A knock at the door of a Union County home owned by a “Kimberly Jones,” according to state property records, went unanswered Monday afternoon. No vehicles were in the driveway.
After screenshots of the Confederate flag post surfaced, @Lakyn_Jones tweeted, “My family will continue to support each other. You all can hate and tweet all you want but our faith cant (sic) be shaken.”
Others try to cash in
As celebrities shared Keaton’s video over the weekend, several Instagram accounts were created, purporting to be either Keaton or his mother.
The bio of one such account, @_taylormadeq, said it was run by Keaton’s mother and provided a link to a PayPal account where donations could be made. The profile picture appeared to be a photo of the Jones family.
The private, verified account’s profile picture and bio were removed just before 5 p.m. Monday. Then, just before 7 p.m., the profile picture was changed, the account’s display name was set to “tre,” and the bio read, “Selling verified pages dm (direct message) me to buy!”
A separate, unverified and public Instagram account, @kimberlyjones_38, was soliciting donations Monday through both PayPal and a now-defunct GoFundMe campaign titled “Give My Son a Good Christmas.”
Joe Schilling, a professional mixed martial artist, posted a video on Instagram, apparently discussing a conversation he had with the operator of that account.
Schilling said in his video that he “felt pretty moved” by Keaton’s message, so he reached out to what he thought was the mom’s account and offered to invite Keaton to an event in Los Angeles.
“She just wants money. She just wants me to share her GoFundMe account,” Schilling said, adding that he asked why. “She said, ‘Christmas is coming and I’m a single mother and blah blah blah, money is tight,’ whatever. … Make your own judgment on that.”
In a second post, Schilling shared a screenshot of messages he exchanged with the @kimberlyjones_38 account. The operator of that account asked him, “What happened to us whites sticking together and helping one of (sic) another against the predator?” In his caption, Schilling acknowledged that the account might be fake.
The @kimberlyjones_38 account apparently had been deleted as of 6:10 p.m. Lakyn Jones tweeted that that wasn’t her mother’s account.
A GoFundMe campaign titled “Stand up for Keaton,” started by a man named Joseph Lam, raised more than $57,000 before it stopped taking donations Monday.
GoFundMe is working with Lam “to ensure the funds go to Keaton,” a spokesman for GoFundMe said in an email.
“When a stranger starts a campaign and does not have a direct connection to the individual they’re raising money for, funds are collected by our payment processors, held, and then only released only to the person named as the beneficiary. All funds are on hold until we’ve received additional information from the beneficiary of the campaign,” the spokesman continued.
“There was a separate GoFundMe active for a short period of time, but we removed it from our platform before it raised any money because of fraud concerns. The identity of the campaign organizer did not match anyone associated with the family.”
School planning to address bullying with students
The school was planning on holding an assembly Monday to address bullying with students, Clay said. He said the media would not be allowed to attend.
An anti-bullying talk has also been planned for January “even before this came out,” Clay said.
He said Horace Maynard Middle School is no different than many other schools where bullying is a problem.
“We’re having a good school year,” Clay said. “I’m sorry it’s like this. We all sympathize with Keaton and we’re doing everything we can to make sure it never happens again. Everybody saw the video and it was horrible. We don’t want anyone to feel like that. Keaton’s a good kid. We’ll take care of him.”
Amanda Hensley, a neighbor of Keaton Jones, talks about bullying problems in Union County Schools.
Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel
Other parents weigh in on bullying
Some parents in the district also said that while bullying is a problem from time to time, it’s no worse than anywhere else.
LeAnn Ray, whose son is in seventh grade at Horace Maynard, said he faced a bullying problem last year. She reported it to the school resource officer, who “handled it pretty well” and after that “the kid left him alone,” said Ray.
Becky Vandergriff, whose daughter is also a seventh-grader at the school, said she hasn’t experienced bullying but that she was upset about what happened to Jones.
“She’s fortunate she’s never had that happen,” said Vandergriff. “She doesn’t think it’s right. I tell my children to treat everybody with respect. I don’t care what the situation is and if you see someone bullying another child, take up for that kid.”
Hensley, Jones’ neighbor, said her daughter, now a junior in high school, also experienced bullying when she was at Horace Maynard a few years ago.
She said her daughter was picked on and called names for being overweight.
“They like to keep it hid over there,” Hensley said. “Unless something like this comes out, they don’t tell nothing.”
Hensley said she read about Keaton Jones on social media and felt bad, but she was not surprised.
“Now I’m just wondering if anything is going to be done,” she said. “I’m not surprised at all. There are fights every day, but they just don’t care. You only hear about stuff like that when it gets full blown.”
Contributing: Brittany Crocker, Knoxville News Sentinel. Follow Rachel Ohm and Travis Dorman on Twitter: @rachel_ohm and @travdorman