Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Philadelphia fifth-grader gets support from Obama in quest to end bullying

Ziainey Stokes (right), 11, with her mother, Zina Stokes, looking on, talks about a letter from President Obama in response to her complaint about bullying at her school.
Ziainey Stokes (right), 11, with her mother, Zina Stokes, looking on, talks about a letter from President Obama in response to her complaint about bullying at her school.

MOST KIDS WHO get bullied don't tell a soul. Far fewer may report the harassment to their parents or teachers.

When Ziainey Stokes was teased incessantly by a couple of bullies at her West Philadelphia Catholic school, she wrote a letter to the president of the United States.

And he replied.

Buoyed by this, the soft-spoken, precocious 11-year-old is now on a mission to end bullying by creating an organization that would help others find their voice and urge adults to pay attention - starting with President Obama.

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  • "What I wrote about [in my letter] was that the kids at my school were being bullied and how it wasn't right," Ziainey said during a recent interview in her West Philadelphia home.

    "I wanted President Obama, the vice president or someone to talk to the kids at my school that it don't matter what you look like, or the color of your skin, you can't treat people bad."

    No one from the West Wing has been to her school to make that presentation since her father, Rodney Smith, mailed her handwritten opus to the White House in January.

    But Ziainey's mother, Zina Stokes, said that hasn't stopped her daughter from recruiting friends to join her yet-to-be-named group or from researching other anti-bullying agencies.

    "She's really taken an initiative," said Stokes, "and I stand by her."

    Ziainey's idea came from years of experiencing constant teasing and name-calling at the hands of her classmates at the Belmont Academy Charter School, her mother said.

    At first, the then-third-grader suffered in silence.

    "She wasn't telling anyone that a girl was taking her lunch," Stokes said. "She would come home hungry, and we didn't know why."

    To avoid further trouble, she was transferred to Our Mother of Sorrows, a parochial school on 48th Street near Wyalusing Avenue, where things seemed to improve.

    But Stokes said that the taunts started up again. "They kept telling me I have a big forehead," Ziainey said. Then they began saying that a friend of hers is gay, which he isn't, she said.

    The fifth-grader's grades began to slip, and she became despondent, her mother said.

    This kind of reaction is typical of students who are being bullied, said Charles Williams, director of the Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University, which is hosting a forum at 6 p.m. tomorrow on Drexel's campus, 3128 Market St., to discuss violence and bullying prevention.

    It's an important topic, he said, because one in three students reports being bullied. That kind of merciless hounding can lead to depression, truancy or suicide, he said.

    For Ziainey, the youngest of eight children in her family, her wake-up call came after reading about a teenage girl who killed herself because she was being bullied.

    "It made me feel sad," Ziainey said of the girl. "She took her life because of other kids. She didn't get shot, or nothing like that, she killed herself because of other kids bullying her."

    It was then she decided to write the letter. She mailed it off in January and waited. And waited.

    Finally, on March 10, it came: Signed by President Obama, the letter on White House letterhead praised the youngster for being brave enough to share her story.

    "Your letter demonstrates a desire to change the culture of your classroom as well as your community," it read.

    Obama receives about 65,000 letters a week, reads 10 every day and personally responds to a handful, according to the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence Web site.

    "The president feels it is important to hear directly from the American people about their ideas and concerns," said White House spokeswoman Moira Mack.

    "Traveling outside Washington to visit communities across the country and receiving letters from people like [Ziainey] help the president and his team stay in touch with the nation."

    "He showed how he cares," Zina Stokes said. "I think even before his four years are up, when he gets done with the oil spill, something will be done with bullying in school."

    In the meantime, Ziainey - who stays up-to-date with current events by regularly reading newspapers, magazines and watching local and national newscasts - will take up the anti-bullying crusade, one school at a time, she said.

    "I want to go to different schools and talk to kids about staying true to yourself and help those getting bullied," she said.

    "I want them not to be afraid. I want to talk to the parents and teachers and get them to help the kids."

    Her ambition never ceases to amaze her mother.

    "For an 11-year-old, with this ambition, to do the things she's doing, is great," her mom said. "She really wants to make a change."

    The school's principal, Sister Owen Patricia Bonner, agrees.

    "She had a cause, an opinion about it, and she took the time and energy to write about it," she said.

    "What she's doing is what a lot of kids need to do," chimed in Ziainey's sister, Nakiyyah Everett, 22.

    "For her to be 11 years old, she has a good head on her shoulders. She has a lot to look forward to."

    DAFNEY TALES talesd@phillynews.com 215-854-5084
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