Thomas Pearce got so angry he had to stop watching.
A surveillance camera on a St. Martin school bus captured videos of a teacher stuffing a towel into the mouth of his granddaughter, who is disabled. Another video showed a bus driver sitting on the teenager.
When he finally had the courage to view the entire footage, his eyes welled up with tears. “I wanted to take matters into my own hands at first,” he said.
And he's appalled that the teacher and bus driver were charged with misdemeanors.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Pearce and his attorney, Michael Crosby, sat down with the Sun Herald to review the footage of Kerri Anne Nettles, then a special-education teacher at St. Martin Middle School, and a bus driver, Antioinette Jane Raymond, who are both accused of assaulting and threatening the girl in 2014 and 2015. Their criminal cases are just now coming to a resolution in 2018.
The child, who the Sun Herald is not naming to protect her privacy, was born with a chromosome disorder called 1p36 deletion syndrome. According to doctors, anyone diagnosed with the disease is either unable to speak or speaks only a few words. The condition causes those affected to have temper tantrums, bite themselves and exhibit other behavioral problems in addition to kidney problems, muscle dysfunction and skeletal abnormalities that prohibit one's ability to live independently.
"She can't do anything on her own," Pearce said. "That's why this is so upsetting." Now 16, the girl has the mind of a 7- or 8-year-old, Pearce said. She was 14 in the videos.
Crosby, who is representing the child's guardians in a civil suit against the Jackson County School District, Principal Stephanie Gruich and other unnamed defendants, said that in his 31 years of practicing law, he's never seen a more disturbing series of events than he saw in the footage of what happened to the girl.
In the civil complaint, Nettles is also accused of putting a rag in the child's mouth and shutting her up in a closet.
"The actual viewing of the abhorrent events so disturbed me that I have yet to recover emotionally," Crosby said. "I pray this will serve as notice to all parents that we live in a world in which we can no longer assume anything, especially when it comes to the safety and well-being of our children."
The family suspected something was wrong with the girl when she started having nightmares, extreme anxiety and began to cry when the school bus showed up to transport her to school.
They found out what had happened to the child when school officials called the family to the school to let them know what had happened to the child.
The Jackson County Sheriff's Department investigated the case.
'You want me to leave you again?'
The bus camera captured Nettles threatening to put Pearce's granddaughter off the bus to walk home during an out-of-town field trip — because the girl was talking and moving around in her seat.
“You want me to leave you again?” the teacher says. “You want this bus to leave? Do you remember when we left you? We are going to pull over and leave you.”
Video footage also shows Nettles fetching a towel off the floor of the bus and stuffing it in the child's mouth to keep her quiet.
That happened on two occasions.
Nettles' attorney, Calvin Taylor, said she was using using a technique similar to what is called a Bite Band, or piece of cloth that is sometimes used to calm a child by placing it in their mouth.
In another instance, the girl is sitting behind the teacher as they were headed to Walmart and the child apparently touches Nettles.
Nettles got angry.
"When you get to this Walmart, you are not sitting behind me," Nettles said. "You are not to touch me. Do not rub my sweater. Do not rub my hair. Do not rub my bottom. Do not rub me."
'Now, go ahead, move, big girl'
During one bus trip, the driver, a heavy-set woman, threatens to take the girl to jail, or even kill her, if she doesn't quiet down.
Another encounter occurs when the bus is stopped and the driver gets angry at the girl for still moving around and saying things, though most of what the girl says is incomprehensible because of her disability.
When the adults thought they heard profanity, the two start yelling back at the girl.
In that instance, the driver storms over to the girl's seat on the bus and thrusts the weight of her body onto the child by sitting in her lap.
“Now, go ahead, move, big girl,” Raymond said as she inched her body back against the child until she's in the corner of the seat against the window.
“Go ahead, move, move,” the driver said. “Can you move now? Huh? You going to shut that mouth, huh? You going to holler anymore? You do it again, I'm going to warn you again. You better shut your mouth. You hear me? You hear me?”
In another instance, the child appears to be calling out for her Maw Maw and Paw Paw, referring to her great-grandmother, Barbara Ledet, and Pearce.
The driver goes off.
"You are not staying home," Raymond said. "You are at school and you are on a field trip and we are going to Walmart and you are going to shut your mouth. Paw Paw is gone. He left you. He left you."
School officials were looking for something else on the tapes, according to Crosby, when they discovered the behavior of Nettles and Raymond.
The Jackson County School District abruptly fired both women.
A grand jury later indicted the two women on misdemeanor charges in 2016.
In April, Nettles was scheduled to enter a plea in her case.
Pearce was there and asked to make a statement prior to the plea. Once again, he said he couldn't understand why Nettles and Raymond were charged with misdemeanors.
At the time, Pearce told the judge he had to quit watching the tapes because “it was so disturbing to me.”
“This is very unbelievable to think that this can happen to a special-needs child and she gets nothing but a slap on the wrist, is given a fine and sent on her way,” he told the judge.
Attorney Calvin Taylor told Judge Kathy King Jackson there was no need for the teacher to testify at the plea hearing because he's already spoken to Special Prosecutor Mark Watts about the case.
Jackson called for a recess to meet with Taylor and Watts in chambers.
Watts had to leave the courtroom for a while that morning to handle the cases he usually prosecutes in county court.
The plea hearing never came up again in the courtroom.
Instead, Nettles was able to enter a no contest plea on paper to two misdemeanor charges of contributing to the neglect of a child and one count of simple assault.
The judge fined Nettles $3,000 and suspended a 30-day jail sentence.
“It just doesn't make sense,” Pearce said. “None of it does. I don't believe the DA's office showed this tape to the grand jury, because I don't think it would have ended up like this.”
The Sun Herald later talked to Watts about the case and what his interpretation was of the child's behavior on the bus.
“It appeared to me that she (the girl) is a severely special-needs child,” Watts said. “It looked to me like the child would see something out the window of the bus, like maybe they passed a Walmart and she was excited and pointing at something.
“She wasn't yelling or anything, but you can't really understand what she is saying most of the time. I guess they thought she was being disruptive.”
Criminal charges of contributing to the delinquency, neglect and abuse of a child, and simple assault — all misdemeanors — are still pending against Raymond. She is scheduled to be in court in July.
When asked to comment, Jackson County School District Superintendent Barry Amacker said, "I trust that an appropriate resolution will be forthcoming. Neither of the two individuals are employed by the district any longer."
Raymond's attorney, Keith Pisarich, declined to comment on the case.