Jackson County

Coast lawmakers demand prosecution if there was a cover up in girl's school bus assault

A delegation of state lawmakers are calling on the district attorney's office to prosecute anyone who may have tried to cover up the assault and mistreatment of a St. Martin special education student.

State Rep. Charles Busby, a lawmaker on the state education committee, said he sent three letters out late this week, one to District Attorney Tony Lawrence, another to the Mississippi Department of Education and one to the Jackson County School Board to express their wishes.

Other state lawmakers also signed the letters: Reps. Hank Zuber, Jeffrey Guice, Manly Barton and John Read and Sens. Brice Wiggins and Michael Watson.

Busby said he and other lawmakers were appalled by the mistreatment of the St. Martin Middle School special education student when the Sun Herald broke the story that included video of the incidents.

In the letter to Jackson County's chief prosecutor, Busby requested the prosecution — if it's found to by supported by evidence — "of any member of the school administration or staff if it is found that anyone acted illegally in covering up this incident."

The lawmakers sent another letter to the Jackson County School Board to let them know state legislators expect the the school district and school board members and any other school officials to fully cooperate with any and all investigations into the incident.

In another letter to MDE, lawmakers expressed their support of any disciplinary action if the investigation reveals Jackson County School Superintendent Barry Amacker failed to report the teacher misconduct to follow state law and report the misconduct.

The incidents, both caught on video in 2014 and 2015, occurred on a Jackson County special education bus, during which driver Antioinette Jane Raymond threatens the girl and sits on top of her to get her to keep quiet and stop moving around.

Then-special education teacher Kerri Anne Nettles yells at the girl, threatens to make her walk home from a field trip and twice stuffs a towel in her mouth to keep her quiet. In addition, a civil lawsuit accuses Nettles of stuffing a rag in the child's mouth in class and shutting her up in a closet.

Nettles pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges, was fined $3,000 and given a suspended jail sentence.

Raymond, charged with contributing to the delinquency, neglect or abuse of a child and simple assault, is scheduled for trial in July.

"I was just shocked that that took place and it took place here in Jackson County," Busby said Friday. "I know a number of special education teachers and I just can't imagine for the life of me anyone acting like that. I was appalled by it."

Hundreds of parents have expressed outrage over what happened to the girl. Initially, parent Holly Fedele was denied her request to address the Jackson County School Board during its meeting Monday night. By Friday, she got approval to do so.

More than 500 people have signed a petition Fedele started in support of a rally before Monday's board meeting. The group is doing the rally to show support for the victim, their outrage over the misdemeanor charges and the failure to report the incident to the parents of other children on the bus at the time of the crimes. In addition, the parents want Amacker fired for failing to report the misconduct to MDE.

In the aftermath of the Sun Herald's ongoing investigation into the incidents, Busby said he and other lawmakers felt compelled to act.

"We wanted to show our support for the investigation into the failure to report this incident" to MDE officials despite a mandate to do so, he said.

Busby also went on record commending the Sun Herald for exposing what happened to the girl, noting lawmakers and the public may have never known what had happened.

Parents and lawmakers also are outraged only misdemeanor charges were brought in the case.

"If the law needs to be changed, that's what we need to do," Busby said. "And if steps were taken to cover this up or not report this incident, then it creates this curtain that you think people may be hiding behind like someone condoned that teachers can act in this manner without fear or recourse.

"We need to make certain that we send a message across the state that this type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be stood for."

The lawmakers also questioned why officials would not review video footage routinely to correct any improper actions.

"What is the purpose of the video if you are not going to look at the video and act on what you see happen?" Busby said.

Margaret Baker 228-896-0538, margar45
Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald