'Like a hero': Morgan middle-schooler overcomes disability, bullying

Tuesday , May 08, 2018 - 5:15 AM

MORGAN — The bullying started when Jackson Sommers was just a first-grader.

He was pushed down, spit on and told by other kids on the playground that he couldn’t play with them, that he wasn’t good enough because he was different.

Jackson is missing 35 percent of his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls muscular activity. This means walking, talking and writing, among other things, are more challenging for him, says his mom, Katie Sommers. 

Now a sixth-grader at Morgan Middle School, the 12-year-old has found a new sense of confidence, thanks to photographer Josh Rossi and costume designer Julie Whiteley — the creative masterminds behind a photo project called “Avengers of Bullying.”

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This past February, Rossi invited 15 kids — 11 of whom are from Utah — to his studio, where they were fitted with a custom-made superhero costume inspired by the new movie “Avengers: Infinity War.” Each kid’s costume was chosen for them based on their own story, celebrating what makes them special.

Jackson was Dr. Strange, as the two share similarities such as overcoming physical challenges that once seemed impossible.

When Katie Sommers watched her son put on that costume, she had tears in her eyes. “Something changed,” she says. “It was like his body changed.” She recalls Jackson telling her that he felt like his disability went away.

He told her it was the “best day of his life.”

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‘WE CAN FIGHT BULLYING’

Katie Sommers wants people to know there are plenty of ways to fight bullying, and that there is strength in numbers and in positivity. 

She and her husband decided to take a new approach to the problem when Jackson entered fifth grade. “We couldn’t change the way kids were treating Jackson, but we could change the way Jackson responded to it,” Katie Sommers says.

Role-playing, for example, helped quite a bit in preparing him to react appropriately to bullies at school. They also watched videos and taught him not to perpetuate the bullies’ negativity in his response.

But Sommers says that school administrators over the past couple years have also played a big part. “Both Morgan Elementary and Morgan Middle School has done an excellent job at teaming up and trying to stomp out bullying,” she says, adding that they have held several assemblies and invited a guest speaker.

“I really think that it’s important to know that schools need to be involved,” Sommers says.

Before participating in the photo project, she says, her son was embarrassed to talk about the way he was treated. But not anymore. Jackson, as well as the other kids in the photo series, have been speaking out against bullying with the hopes of spreading that sense of empowerment.

They’ve even grabbed a national spotlight. Just a couple weeks ago, Jackson spoke with CNN, offering advice to others who are being bullied: "You are not alone. If bullies say you can't do stuff, prove them wrong. Keep on being strong," he said.

“To see him be able to speak out has been incredible,” Sommers says of her son. “We always felt like he was a hero.”

Now, he feels like one too.

Standard-Examiner Copy Editor Andrea Harvey can be reached at aharvey@standard.net. You can also follow her on Twitter at @andrearharvey or on Facebook at facebook.com/andreaharveyjourno.

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