The school bus assault of a disabled girl may have never happened, a notice of a lawsuit says, had a Coast school district taken action against teacher Kerri Anne Nettles for alleged misconduct in 2009.
The girl's lawyer, Michael Crosby, on Friday sent the Ocean Springs School District a notice of potential litigation.
In his letter, he says after officials investigated claims of Nettles drinking alcohol on school grounds, her “misconduct was swept under the rug and concealed from the board of education as well as future children and parents who would foreseeably and predictably be subject to injury should she be employed to do so.”
Nettles immediately resigned and no record of alleged misconduct was made by the district, including not reporting it to the Mississippi Department of Education as required, the former superintendent says.
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The district's inaction paved the way for her to land another teaching job in St. Martin Middle School, Crosby said, where Nettles and bus driver Antioinette Raymond were caught on surveillance camera mistreating a then-14-year-old disabled student.
Crosby argues the school district could have fired Nettles instead of allowing her to resign. And filing a report on the alleged infraction with the state could have prevented Nettles from teaching again.
When contacted this week, a lawyer for Nettles acknowledges that she has struggled with alcohol in the past.
In Crosby's letter to Ocean Springs Superintendent Bonita Coleman, Crosby agreed not to file the lawsuit if the Ocean Springs School District agreed to pay $500,000 in damages.
In his own investigation, Crosby said he's collected evidence to suggest Nettles was “keeping and consuming alcohol in her classroom on the (Ocean Springs) campus during the school day on numerous occasions.”
Nettles first resigned amid allegations of misconduct in 2009 when she was teaching at Magnolia Elementary. She returned in 2011 and taught at Taconi Elementary and Ocean Springs Upper Elementary before resigning again in July 2014.
Shortly thereafter, she was hired as a special education teacher at St. Martin Middle. It wasn't long after that Nettles was caught on school bus video repeatedly yelling at the disabled student before twice stuffing a towel in her mouth to shut her up.
Nettles has since pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charge of assault and contributing to the neglect of a child.
Surveillance video also showed bus driver Antioinette Jane Raymond threatening to choke and kill the girl before later sitting on top of the girl in her seat on the bus. After being indicted on misdemeanor charges of assault and contributing to the delinquency, neglect or abuse of a child, Raymond is set to plead guilty in July.
'Areas of latitude'
Nettles was first investigated for potential wrongdoing after the principal at Magnolia Park Elementary in Ocean Springs smelled what she thought was alcohol on Nettles' breath and suspected she was drinking on the job, former Superintendent Robert Hirsch said Tuesday.
An investigation followed that included the response of a school resource officer to investigate and escort Nettles off school grounds, Hirsch said.
As part of the investigation, the officer tried to administer a portable breathalyzer test on Nettles to determine if she was impaired. But the officer, Hirsch said, got frustrated because Nettles wouldn't blow hard enough into the machine to get a reading.
When the officer asked Nettles to blow harder to get a reading, Hirsch said, Nettles “refused to blow any harder," then promptly submitted her resignation.
As a result, Hirsch said, the investigation essentially ended before any conclusive evidence could be collected, he said.
“We just didn't have the evidence, but we did try to get it,” he said.
It would have been Hirsch's responsibility to report any alleged incidents of teacher misconduct to the state.
Nettles' resignation came Jan. 28, 2009, the same day she was accused of drinking on the job. The alleged teacher infraction was never reported to MDE when Hirsch was superintendent.
“I reviewed all the personnel records and the matters in there are of course private under federal and state law and I don't think I can comment any further on her separation from the district,” Ocean Springs School District attorney Alwyn Luckey said.
Hirsch defended his actions when it came to dealing with the alleged infraction.
“There are areas of latitude you have in leadership,” Hirsch said. “If somebody recovers or makes an effort to recover from alcoholism or something like that, my feeling is that they should be given a second chance.”
Still, he admits, these types of decisions are difficult ones to make.
“You can destroy somebody with a stroke of a pen or you can say, 'Hey, they are going to get some help and recover from this,'” Hirsch said. “My feeling is that they should be given a chance. I don't feel if you make a mistake in life, it should be fatal.
“I've operated under the hope that the individual would get help and recover and hopefully not end up a statistic in the morgue.”
She 'did have a problem'
Nettles' attorney, Fredrick B. Feeney II, confirmed Tuesday that Nettles “did have a problem with alcohol.”
“She did go through a program and is still working with a recovery program and she has presented that publicly through various groups, including church groups,” he said. “But my understanding is she has been sober since 2009 and continues to participate in a recovery program.”
Nettles, Feeney said, specifically resigned from Ocean Springs in 2009 “to seek medical attention for alcohol addiction.”
“She attended the Home Of Grace and graduated, she attends a Recovery Program and continues to work on her recovery," he said. "She regularly tells her story to her recovery partners, schools and different outreach programs to help others in need of support.
"Additionally, as part of her recovery and outreach to the community," Feeney said, Nettles has "provided her testimony to her church on several occasions and is a member of their prayer team. At this time Kerri continues to stay involved in her community, giving back to those in need of support. She understands that alcoholism has destroyed many lives of those around her and is deeply sorry, making a living amends daily to stay alcohol free.”
Feeney pointed out Nettles has “worked hard to become a better community member, mother and person.”
"She understands that true forgiveness is like love,” the attorney said. "It is a choice that each individual has to make within their own heart and realize this will take time as the community sees her plan for giving back. Kerri's heart and her time is always available to assist anyone who is struggling with an addiction and in need of support.“