Middle school bullies. Many of us have experienced them— and some of us, admittedly, were them. In fact, according to NoBullying.com, a study reported by the Department of Helth and Human Services found that:

29.3 percent of middle school students had experienced bullying in the classroom; 29 percent experienced it in hallways or lockers; 23.4 percent were bullied in the cafeteria; 19.5 percent were bullied during gym class; and 12.2 percent of bullied kids couldn’t even escape the torture in the bathroom.

Last week, 11-year-old Keaton Jones shared a bullying experience with his mother, who in turn shared it with the world.

It was raw, it was tearful, it brought us back to the middle school cafeteria.

“They make fun of my nose. They call me ugly. They say I have no friends,” Keaton said. “[They] poured milk on me and put ham down my clothes, threw bread at me.”

Almost immediately, stars — Justin Bieber, LeBron James, Donald Trump Jr., to name a few — began rallying around Keaton:

#StandWithKeaton started trending on social media.

With his instant fame, of course, came criticism.

Instead of focusing on the boy’s gut-wrenching plea to stop bullying, the attention turned to Keaton’s mother: Kimberly Jones. Confederate flag-splashed photos shared by the woman were uncovered, one with Keaton holding an American flag standing next to a boy holding a Confederate flag and another with Kimberly displaying it.

The backlash was rapid.

Many media outlets, including Dearly.com, stopped writing about Keaton’s movement to end bullying — and the togetherness around it — and started reporting on Kimberly Jones and her insipid photos.

CNN reports that celebrities, including Rhianna, deleted their supportive messages to Keaton. Many began blaming Kimberly for the boy’s bullying. Some even argued that Keaton deserved to be bullied because of his racist mom.

But isn’t this igniting the flame that Keaton so badly wishes to put out? The boy pondered in his video:

“Why do you find joy in taking innocent people and finding a way to be mean to them.”

Are we finding joy in taking this child’s story and using it to further fuel a culture of bullying?

I do not condone racism in any shape or form. But I do not believe this 11-year-old boy should be judged by the actions of his parents— not his mother, who adamantly claims she is not a racist, nor his allegedly estranged father, who is in prison and is being pinned as a white supremacist.

We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by focusing on what makes us different from this family, or what we view is wrong. Instead, we must look past that and take Keaton’s message for what it is— a desperate plea to end the bullying that so widely exists in our culture.

We can start to combat bullying by standing together, despite our differences. That’s what we did when we first heard Keaton’s story, and that’s what we must continue to do— if not for Keaton, for the millions of others who are bullied every single day.

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