Nine months after a Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office deputy tased a student with special needs at Española Valley High School, police officers will be returning to the Española School District.
The Española School Board unanimously approved Feb. 5 a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the District and the Española Police Department for two student resource officers to work at school sites for the rest of the school year.
According to the Memorandum, one officer will be assigned at Española Valley High School and another at Española Middle School.
Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez said she was pleased with the completed Memorandum.
“We’re hopeful for a great partnership,” she said. “We think we have a real solid MOU at this point, and don’t anticipate any problems that some of those that we had in the past.”
Those problems include when Jeremy Barnes, who at the time was a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office, tased a student with special needs at the High School last May. Lapel footage of the incident shows Barnes slamming the student against a desk, later firing his taser while a school security guard grappled with the student.
A review of Barnes’ personnel file showed he had not completed any of the required training listed in the Memorandum with the Sheriff’s Office. He was later fired and then indicted on charges of false imprisonment and abuse of a child. He could face up to six years in prison if convicted.
The new Memorandum states student resource officers must complete training on children with disabilities and adolescent psychology within their first semester of working in the schools. Officers must then complete the same training on an annual basis thereafter.
Safety and Security Manager Donald Lopez said the two student resources officers, Michelle Ortega and Rodney Perea, already completed their special education training on Feb. 1 through the Crisis Prevention Institution.
Negotiations between the District and city surrounding the Memorandum lasted for several months, with most of the debate focusing on how much the District would pay for the officers and when they would work.
A draft of the Memorandum originally had the price point set at $138,992. The contract now states that the Department will be reimbursed for how much the officers work, which interim chief of police Roger Jimenez said would be around $40,000, since the school year is almost over.
“It took a little longer than I expected or wanted, but overall I like it,” he said. “I think it’s a good starting point for us and hopefully we can get something a little sooner in the year.”
Jimenez said he thinks the Memorandum will prevent future incidents.
“Time will tell,” he said. “I don’t foresee any issues as far as the lack of training goes. We should be good there.”
During negotiations, the Department stationed officers at the High School for a month to protect students, Jimenez said.
Ortega previously worked as a student resource officer and told the Board she was happy to return. She said she plans to relaunch a cadet program for students.
“I already have kids knocking at the door,” she said.
Jimenez said Perea is new to the Department, having previously worked for the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, and has not previously been a student resource officer.
The Rio Grande SUN attempted to request Perea’s personnel file from his previous employer, but San Miguel Under Sheriff Michael Padilla said his Office “does not give out personnel files.”
Public record laws in New Mexico allow for the inspection of a public employee’s personnel file. A request for Perea’s file was sent to the San Miguel County clerk Feb. 7 and is still pending.
‘We’ve had a couple incidents’
Student resource officers have also been a topic of discussion at the New Mexico State Legislature this year. Two bills would provide additional funding for police departments to station officers in schools, while standardizing the training they are required to take.
Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the bill and told the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 31 that it is important every officer in the state receives training on working in schools, since some departments are so small.
“I think (in) our rural communities, they don’t have the resources to put an officer in a school,” said Ruiloba, who worked as a student resource officer in Albuquerque.
These trainings include working in school environments, being a positive role model and interacting with students with adolescent mental health disorders. Ruiloba said trainings are beneficial to both police departments and school districts, both of whom can be damaged when training is not implemented.
“We’ve had a couple incidents in New Mexico that were really visible in the media, that showed the best way not to engage students when they’re in crisis,” he said. “It’s a challenge, because not only does it cause trauma with the student, but it also creates a huge liability with that school district and for the police department.”