Nathan’s Legacy

Lori McJohnson with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, center, and her ex-husband Andy Key after helping get Kadyn’s Law passed in Iowa in 2012. The law was named in honor of 7-year-old Kadyn Halverson, who was struck and killed by a motorist while boarding a bus in rural Northwood, Iowa in May 2011. The law enhanced penalties for motorists who pass stopped buses in Iowa, just like Nathan’s Law did in Mississippi after the North Jones Elementary kindergartner was struck and killed by a motorist in December 2009. (Photo from the Globe-Gazette)

Mom wants son’s killer to help with school-bus safety message

Nathan Key

Lori McJohnson wasn’t shocked when she learned that her young son’s killer would be released from prison after serving barely one-third of his sentence. But her reaction to the news was shocking.

“Now he should take a stand with me for school-bus safety,” she said this week after a ceremony at North Jones Elementary that honored her son, 5-year-old Nathan Key, and other NJE students who died in recent years. “Every time I talk to a (violating) driver or a parents’ group … he should be right there with me. His (parole officer) should require that he be a part of school-bus safety. I feel like it should be required.”

Nathan, who was a kindergartner at NJE, was killed after stepping off a bus in front of his home on Houston Road in December 2009. Dominic Gebben was driving the SUV that passed the stopped school bus, ran over Nathan, then fled the scene. In June 2012, a Jones County jury found Gebben guilty of culpable negligence manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident. Then-Judge Billy Joe Landrum sentenced him to the maximum, 22 years in prison. 

But Gebben is scheduled for “early release supervision in George County” starting Monday, according to a notification that was sent out by the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Gebben

“Gebben has been approved for release under the Earned Release Supervision (ERS) Program,” according to an emailed response from MDOC spokeswoman Grace Fisher. “This is a program created under state law. So MDOC is authorized by statute to grant such a release. 

“Several factors are considered in granting release. In addition to the offense and time served, an inmate’s history of institutional conduct, program participation and victim/community opposition are considered.”

McJohnson said she knew that the MDOC’s Parole Board often released offenders well before they had served even half of their sentences.

“That’s one of the very reasons I pushed so hard for the max,” she said. “I knew his time in prison would be short-lived.”

And now, the way McJohnson sees it, life is about to get tougher for Gebben.

“The time he is going to serve on paper (post-release supervision under MDOC) is going to be more of a punishment than the time he served in prison,” she said. “Now he has to work to have cable, air-conditioning and food instead of having it all provided.”

Nathan’s parents, Andy Key and McJohnson, turned their grief into a mission to promote school-bus safety, pushing with state Sen. Chris McDaniel for the passage of Nathan’s Law, which enhanced penalties for motorists who pass stopped school buses. The young boy’s name also lives on with the Nathan Key Legacy Foundation, which raised money to put security cameras in buses in Jones County and elsewhere.

And McJohnson, who now works as secretary of transportation for the Greenville Public Schools, wants to continue to crusade for school-bus safety, even if it means standing shoulder to shoulder with the man who killed her son. She wants that so she can gauge if he’s truly had a change of heart.

“He’s served his time for his actions on Dec. 11, 2009,” she said. “Now, he can attempt to right his wrong by helping advocate to keep others safe. At the very least, he needs to be washing buses or sweeping them or something.”

Terry Graham, who is director of transportation for the Jones County Schools, said that would “be a good measuring stick” of Gebben’s rehabilitation. School-bus safety advocates like Graham and McJohnson need all of the help they can get, from the stories they tell about motorists still passing school buses.

“It wasn’t about the punishment, it was about the message,” Graham said while sitting with McJohnson and responding to Gebben’s release. “I felt like we sent a strong message … but I’m disappointed daily. People run those stop arms daily.”

While taking state surveys of stop-arm violations, there have been as many as 17 in a single day and 12 have been prosecuted this year, Graham said. And that’s just using cameras that are rotated to a handful of the county’s 130 buses.

In January, a 7-year-old girl suffered serious injuries when she was struck getting off a school bus in Greenville.

“That put me on an emotional roller-coaster that morning,” McJohnson said. 

She said she has had no contact with Gebben since their day in court. She hopes he will work with her to help bring attention to the problem and possibly prevent more tragedies.

“If he turns me down,” McJohnson said, “it will be like another slap in the face.”

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