As the Española School District continues working on an agreement for student resource officers (SROs) at its schools, state lawmakers met at Northern New Mexico College to discuss policing in schools and listen to experts in the field.
The discussion took place during a day-long joint meeting between the Legislative Education Study and Health and Human Services Committees.
Five panelists gave their professional perspectives on the issue of police in schools.
First to speak was Jesse Clifton, a lawyer with Disability Rights New Mexico, a nonprofit advocating for people with disabilities.
He said that police officers and SROs are too often used for disciplinary situations that could be handled by school administrators.
“I think we need to address how police and SROs are used in those instances,” he said.
Clifton gave an example of a student who threw an eraser at a teacher and received a felony assault charge.
In the first month of school, the District called police officers to Española Valley High School more than 30 times. The incidents included students allegedly having cannabis wax vape pens, fighting and causing criminal damage.
Clifton said Districts can prevent confusion by clarifying what type of incidents officers can respond to in the Memorandum of Understanding.
The draft Memorandum between the District and Española Police Department, which has yet to be approved by the School Board, states that officers may only be involved when there is “an immediate threat” to a student or staff member.
Clifton said incidents between officers and students occur disproportionately to students with disabilities, since SROs often lack the necessary training. He also said SROs have the legal authority to involve themselves in any situation in a school.
“Once the school has turned that authority over to law enforcement, there’s no hitting the brakes on that,” he said.
One controversial instance with a police officer in schools involved former Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Barnes at Española Valley High School. Barnes tased a student with special needs three times after a security guard tackled the student and ripped off his shirt.
More recently, an 11-year-old student with special needs in Farmington was repeatedly thrown against a wall by an SRO for allegedly assaulting a school administrator. Lapel camera footage later showed the student did not commit assault.
Clifton said these incidents illustrate problems in the SRO system, but do not mean officers do not belong in schools.
“This reveals deficiencies in the system and it reveals that these officers weren’t properly trained in dealing with these students,” he said.
Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, also spoke before the committee about how SROs can be better trained. Ruiloba previously served as an SRO in Albuquerque Public Schools.
“The SRO should be apart of the support system for the student and family,” he said. “There is a time and place for an officer’s response, we just need to define it.”
Española School District Safety and Security Manager Donald Lopez said, once hired, the SROs will receive training from District psychologists on how handle situations involving students with special needs. He said officers will be required to have this training before working on any campus.
Legislators also focused on the growing number of suspensions in New Mexico, particularly in Albuquerque, where more than 7,000 students were suspended last school year.
In the 2016-2017 school year, Española students were suspended 426 times, with nearly half of suspensions occurring at Española Middle School alone, according to ProPublica.
Second Judicial District Court Mental Health Commissioner John Schoeppner said these suspensions increase the likelihood of a student entering the criminal justice system.
“We suspended way too many kids in this community,” he said referring to the state. “It’s way too easy to get into the juvenile justice system.”
Several legislators on the joint committee said resources of students with special needs must be increased in order to prevent situations with law enforcement at schools.
“I believe that we are losing our children,” Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said. “If they’re mentally ill, off you go to prison for help. There’s no services for them.”
Española School Board President Ruben Archuleta said the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office will review the Memorandum with Española Police before it is approved.