Jackson County

How can we protect disabled students at school? Coast DA and lawmaker have a plan.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence and state legislators are working to draft a law to make it a felony child abuse charge if the victim suffers mental anguish as a result of the attack.

In addition, he and state lawmakers want to draft a bill to amend existing laws and make it a felony if a child's airway is partially restricted during an attack.

If similar laws had been in place when a St. Martin Middle School special education student was assaulted on a school bus, felony charges could have applied in the case, he said.

In videos, former St. Martin special education teacher, Kerri Anne Nettles, is seen yelling at a disabled child and twice stuffing a towel in the child's mouth to shut her up. In other footage, bus driver Antioinette Jane Raymond threatens the child, then 14, and later sits on top of the girl in her bus seat to keep her quiet and prevent her from moving around.

A judge fined Nettles $3,000 for her crimes and gave her a 30-day suspended prison sentence. Raymond,who is also facing misdemeanor offenses, is scheduled to go to trial in July.

Lawrence set up a community forum Monday that included input from Mississippi Rep. Brice Wiggins. He did so in response to the outrage parents of special needs children in Mississippi have expressed since the Sun Herald broke the story on the school bus assault.

If the right laws had been in place, Lawrence said, felony charges could have applied in the case.

Several parents wanted to know if the grand jury considered felony charges in its deliberations. All applicable laws for the case did go before the grand jury, Lawrence said, including possible opportunity to issue felony indictments.

Lawrence called on parents at the meeting to sign up to provide input for any proposed law change or updates in the push to get the laws changed.

But before any draft for new legislation is finalized, Lawrence and Wiggins want to further study the options.

"What we want to do is we want a call to action," Lawrence said. "We want to look at other states and put a package together to make sure our special needs and vulnerable children are protected."

Margaret Baker 228-896-0538, margar45