Saturday, October 1, 2022

Disabled Teen’s Attack Sparks Push to Change Mississippi Law

 

Austin Stokes/Photo Courtesy of Facebook

Activist LeeAnn Rasmussen seeks to get attacks on disabled individuals covered under state hate crimes

By Pete Raif, undergraduate student, University of Mississippi

Email Peter Raif at pjraif@go.olemiss.edu

The attack on a South Mississippi teen with cerebral palsy has one civil rights activist pushing for a change in Mississippi’s hate crimes statute.

Austin Stokes, a 14-year-old student, is also legally blind and has limited use of the left side of his body. He attended George County High School in south Mississippi.

Stokes says that on October 18, a fellow student called him a “retard” and then attacked. The student was later expelled and charged with simple assault. Because the attacker is a juvenile, authorities are not releasing his name or his sentence, but Stokes has now moved to a different school.

Lori Ann Dees, Austin’s mother, was outraged when she went to the school to find Austin in a wheelchair with his only good eye swollen shut, a chipped tooth, a swollen lip and saw him bleeding from his face. She was then shocked to find out that persons with disabilities are not protected under the state’s hate crimes statute.

“I feared the need for the change, but wasn’t sure what I could offer to help make the change,” said Dees.

In several states, including Louisiana and Alabama, the attack could be considered a hate crime, but not in Mississippi. Now, activist LeeAnn Rasmussen is trying to change that.

Rasmussen, who has a long history of advocating for civil rights and military veterans, saw Austin’s story on Facebook and knew she had to do something.

“I want Mississippi to be a social justice state,” says Rasmussen.

Rasmussen started Mississippi Citizens for Austin’s Law to try to get persons with disabilities added to the Mississippi hate crimes statute. This addendum would allow for tougher sentences for crimes motivated by hate against Mississippi’s disabled population.

“I think that the penalty enhancement will act as a deterrent to somebody who would be motivated to act out of hatred,” Rasmussen said.

Sammy Kim, who works for a regional program that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, personally believes that changing the law to help protect those with disabilities might not help in every case.

“It’s hard to determine why people do the things they do,” says Kim, but he agrees that the law is necessary. “If we know that hate was the intent behind the action, then certainly it should be categorized as such.”

The deadline for introducing new legislation has already passed for this year, but Rasmussen hopes to raise enough awareness and get enough petitions signed to change the law next year. Rep. Tom Miles, a Democrat representing Forest and Morton, has recently stepped forward as the legislative sponsor.

“The idea that an individual would be attacked because of a disability is sickening. We need to make sure that people are punished who hurt a disabled person on purpose. I am sorry to say that it’s necessary, but it is,” says Miles.

Susan McPhail of Oxford is the mother of a young woman with autism. She says that her daughter has been the target of discrimination because of her disability.

“She’s seen by some, in my opinion, when they do that, as less of a person,” said McPhail.

Rasmussen says that Mississippi Citizens for Austin’s Law is looking for help. You can contact the group via Facebook or e-mail at austinslaw@hotmail.com or by phone (228) 324-4044.

Dees also urges people to do their own research and find for themselves what it is Mississippi Citizens for Austin’s Law is fighting for.

“It’s not just other children who are bullying and hating on disabled people, it’s adults as well.”

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