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Weather can't dampen enthusiasm at rally for Austin's Law

By Warren Kulo | Gulflive.com | March 2, 2013

austin-stokes
  Austin Stokes (right) gets a little help with a jacket from friend Katie Peterson during a rally for Austin's Law in Biloxi Saturday. A group called Mississippi Citizens for Austin's Law wants the state's hate crime statute changed to include the disabled among those protected. Stokes was attacked in October 2012 by another student at George County High School.

BILOXI, Mississippi -- Despite cold, blustery conditions, supporters of the proposed Austin's Law turned out in force to bring greater attention to their cause.

Austin's Law is a proposed change to the Mississippi statute governing hate crimes. Supporters of the proposal want to add people with disabilities to the group protected under the current state hate crime law.

The effort to change state law began in the wake of an Oct. 18, 2012 attack on then 14-year-old Austin Stokes at George County High School. Stokes, a freshman who has cerebral palsy, was beaten by a senior football player who called him "retard" prior to the attack.

Stokes lost several teeth and suffered from about an 80 percent vision loss, although much of his lost vision has returned in the months since, according to Candace Jackson, a member of the grassroots group Mississippi Citizens for Austin's Law.

He transferred to East Central High School after the attack.

Saturday's event on the Town Green in Biloxi was the kickoff event for a year-long drive to secure the 1,000 petition signatures needed to present to the state legislature to have the law changed, Jackson said.

"There are 30 states which already have people with disabilities protected under hate crime laws," Jackson said. "We have a lot of good people on our side and the response from legislators has been positive. We've gotten a lot of support already from (U.S. Rep.) Steven Palazzo and (Ocean Springs Mayor) Connie Moran."

Jackson said they already have 560 signatures, meaning only 440 more are needed to reach the 1,000 they need. Jackson, however, won't be satisfied with that.

"I'm very passionate and stubborn and I want a lot more (signatures) than that," she said.

Austin was on hand for Saturday's event, which also served as a birthday party of sorts as he turned 15 on Friday.

"I think it's pretty awesome," he said of the support he's receiving. "We're never going to give up until it's done. It's amazing how people have stepped out of the blue to help me."

Jackson noted the student who attacked Austin was only sentenced to three days house arrest and "has moved on like nothing ever happened."

"We're trying to right a wrong," she said. "This is something that should have been handled differently."

Although they have an increasing amount of support, much of the work in the campaign for Austin's Law is done by Jackson, LeeAnn Gunn-Rasmussen and Suzanne Kilgore.

"We're trying to take this campaign national," Jackson said, "and bring awareness to this issue in other states."

Like her son, Austin's mother, Lori Ann Dees, is "overwhelmed" by the support they are receiving.

"It's hard to believe there's so many people who care about this and support us," she said.

"I've heard from so many people who are telling us their experiences with bullying," Dees added. "Just last night at the (Surge) hockey game, a special ed teacher from Hattiesburg told us about one of her students being attacked."

Mississippi Citizens for Austin's Law will continue to campaign throughout the remainder of the year in hopes of having Austin's Law introduced in the legislature during the 2014 session.

The group also has a Facebook page where supporters can learn more about the campaign and upcoming events.