Education

Parents demand new superintendent as they rally before Jackson County school board meeting

Parents held up signs Monday calling on the Jackson County School District to hold accountable those who failed to protect a special education student after her mistreatment was captured on school bus surveillance video.

"Our protectors failed us," one sign read. Another said, "Be the voice they don't have."

The group of parents is calling for the firing or resignation of Superintendent Barry Amacker for failing to report the assault and mistreatment of a special education student to the state Department of Education.

The parents held a demonstration before the Jackson County School Board on Monday evening. Also at the meeting were teachers and others supporting Amacker for his work over the years.

One parent, Holly Fedele, was permitted to address the Board.

"How do you, the board, plan to hold employees accountable for violating laws, policies and proper procedures?" she asked board members. "How will you hold him accountable?"

She has already gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition calling for the Board to remove Amacker.

Teacher Kerri Anne Nettles and bus driver Antioinette Jane Raymond faced misdemeanor charges in the case involving the St. Martin student, then 14. In video footage, Nettles is seen stuffing a towel in the child's mouth to shut her up; Raymond threatened the girl, and sat on top her to keep her quiet and stop her from moving around in her seat.

After the Sun Herald broke the story, MDE officials confirmed they were not notified of the incidents as required by law.

Some of the school board members commended the parents.

"I think we all watched in horror the activities on the school bus," said Glenn Dickerson. "The idea that my child, your child, or anybody's child could be treated like this is unimaginable to me. I want to thank you (Fedele) for helping to bring this out. I want to thank the Sun Herald for the work they have done. The free press is important to us."

He and Kenneth Fountain, another school board member who has children in Jackson County schools, said the board will fully cooperate with MDE to make sure the agency gets all the facts available.

"It's unacceptable, it's disgusting, and it cannot and will not be tolerated," Fountain said of the mistreatment.

Like other parents, Fedele said the surveillance video published by the Sun Herald sparked "sadness and rage."

"Not only did I feel for the child in this video, I also thought of my child and the way he shouts, 'Hi, Mr. Ben,' at his bus driver each weekday," she told the Board. "I thought of the way he tells me he loves his teachers and how excited he is to go to school. I thought of how quickly that could change from abuse.

"He would begin hating school, and it would be such a waste of all the talent, intellect, joy, and perseverance of not only my son but also (Mr. Ben, the bus driver) and the many wonderful teachers, that have been involved in our lives thus far."

At first, Fedele said she felt lucky her own son, who suffers from Down Syndrome, had been treated so well, but then she felt she had to take a stance.

"Empathy and justice demand that I do not sit back on my luck, close my eyes and ignore what another child with similar needs to my son has endured," she said.

Though MDE has no record of a report being filed, Amacker said the information was mailed to MDE. He has not provided a copy of the filed report.

By failing to report the incidents, Fedele said she and other parents fear the individuals involved could end up working once again with children.

“Such failure of follow policy is unacceptable as it is a potential for future abuse of other children,” she said.

Fedele said parents also sent a letter to MDE to show their support for a "thorough” investigation and action against those involved in any cover-up.

“We offered our complete support for the disciplining of any member of the Jackson County ... administration or staff who participated in any way to block or delay the proper reporting of this incidence,” Fedele said.

Parents want to ensure MDE officials permanently revoke the teaching license for Kerri Anne Nettles for her assault and mistreatment of the special needs student on a school bus.

Seven Coast lawmakers are also calling for the prosecution of any involved in any cover-up of the assault on the St. Martin girl.

State Rep. Charles Busby was among those calling for action at Monday's meeting.

"In order to establish and restore public trust, let's figure out what's going on, let's talk, deal with it and move on," he said.

Margaret Baker can be reached at 228-896-0538 or @margar45.
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