Stephenie Bley felt sick to her stomach.
She couldn't help but imagine her own daughter being mistreated the same way a St. Martin special education student had been at the hands of a teacher and a bus driver.
And she wasn't alone. Hundreds of parents have reacted with outrage after the Sun Herald published video of the incidents last week. They have organized on Facebook, planned a rally, started a petition, reached out to state and school officials, and plan on attending Monday's school board meeting.
Fear and anger swept over Bley as she watched the school bus surveillance video of teacher Kerri Anne Nettles yelling at the disabled girl to keep her quiet before stuffing a towel in her mouth.
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The towel stayed in the girl's mouth for three minutes. It happened more than once.
“I can only imagine my own daughter making so-called 'noise' — that I absolutely welcome because that's her form of communication,” said Bley, the mother of a child with a rare brain disorder called Alobar holoprosencephal. “My daughter could suffocate because she has respiratory issues.”
When Bley found out only misdemeanor charges were filed in the case against Nettles and the bus driver, Antioinette Jane Raymond, she was appalled.
'How would we know?'
She turned to Facebook to ask parents to join her in protesting the charges, as well as the failure of school officials to inform parents of other students on the bus of the incidents.
Bley now has the support of hundreds of parents of special needs children in Mississippi and beyond, including Donna Brewer, head of the South Mississippi Special Needs Organization, state Rep. Carolyn Crawford, and licensed social worker Holly Fedele.
All are concerned other mistreatment is going unreported, even to the parents.
One parent reached out to the Sun Herald to express how upset she was after realizing her child was on the bus when the incidents in the video took place.
“If this happened and nobody knew about it, what else has happened that we don't know about?,” Bley said. “How would we know? If you (the Sun Herald) hadn't brought this to our attention, no one would even know about it."
Parents also were outraged to learn the Mississippi Department of Education had no record of the incident, though it is state mandate for superintendents to report them. As a result, Nettles' license to teach has not been revoked.
"As a mom, I do not want this to ever happen to my child," Bley added. "I will do everything in my power to help change laws that need to be changed. I will advocate for all special needs kids. "
Brewer echoed the sentiment, adding she was "horrified to learn that this happened to these innocent students who were placed in the care of people that they were taught to trust and respect."
'The greatest fear'
Fedele has launched a petition asking people to show support for the family of the St. Martin child. She has so far received more than 300 signatures from as far away as Sacramento, California.
"I have always been an advocate for children with special needs," Fedele said. "The video just infuriated me and of course caused a lot of pain for the child that was involved. That is the greatest fear for a parent with special needs, especially for those children who are nonverbal. Now, we have to wonder if we are supposed to do something more to protect our children at school."
The South Mississippi Special Needs Organization also is holding a rally at 4 p.m. Monday, before the Jackson County School Board meeting.
Fedele has tried repeatedly to be placed on the meeting agenda, but that request has been denied.
Instead, in emails between her and Superintendent Barry Amacker, she was told to she needed to follow "protocol" and meet with Amacker first to try to resolve her concerns. She repeatedly asked Amacker why she would not be placed on the agenda.
'You worry about retaliation'
Though Fedele said her child, who has Down syndrome, has been treated well in St. Martin schools, what happened to the child has parents questioning whether their children are going to be safe and treated properly.
But they also fear backlash.
"You worry about retaliation," she said. "I don't think my son's teacher would do anything, but we all have individualized education plans in place for our children which are legal documents on what the school is supposed to be doing for our special needs kids.
"Sometimes, if teachers are unhappy about the way things are going, they can change the IEP plan, and that could mean less services for your child. Then the parents have to get an attorney. No one wants that to happen."
Still, Fedele and other parents say they are willing to stand up and show their support even if it means they will face repercussions.
"We in the special needs community are outraged over this, but I was also not surprised by it, which is kind of contradictory," said Fedele. "You want to think a teacher who went to school to get a degree in special education did so because they loved children with special needs. But then you see people who are evil no matter what their career is."
Crawford is a state representative for part of Harrison County. She and her husband, Michael Crawford are parents of two special needs children.
In addition, Michael Crawford worked in the school system for 27 years as a special education teacher and administrator. He called what happened on the bus "horrible and disturbing."
He said the treatment the child endured did not represent what teachers are taught regarding how to respond in such situations to de-escalate the situation.
"Nothing about the way they addressed the child was proper," he said. "You don't do that to a regular kid much less to a special needs child who is unable to speak or care for themselves. It takes a lot of patience and a special person to really work with kids with special needs."