Matthew Medina remembers a warm spring day in 2003 when he was a student at Carlos F. Vigil Middle School, then one of two middle schools in the Española School District.
At age 12, it was the first time he ever saw police violence inside of a school.
Some students got in a fight in a common area at the school, and police sprayed them with mace, he said, including many others who were not involved in the fight.
“I don’t remember if it was campus police or security officers on campus, but they just maced everyone,” Medina said. “Everyone around that area was just maced, including myself.”
He and other students began choking when the mace came from the hallway into the classroom, he said.
“The only way to get out was to walk into the hallway,” he said. “I remember even thinking, ‘Do I need to jump out of this window?’”
Now 29, Medina refers to the Española school system as “kindergarten prison,” and believes students should never experience what he and his classmates did.
Instead of relying on police to solve social problems, he said, schools and social programs need to be radically changed to tackle the root causes of crime.
“The school-to-prison pipeline is very much real, especially in this area, in Rio Arriba County,” he said in a June 5 interview. “We’re not tackling things like making education better, and adult education, and things like health care, mental health care.”
Medina protested against racism and police violence outside the Española Public Library on June 2, and at the city’s busiest intersection on June 6.
He and other local residents took part in at least three nights of small-scale demonstrations decrying police violence that week.
They came amid two straight weeks of large-scale protests in at least 700 cities and towns of all sizes in rural, urban and suburban parts of the U.S., all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
‘This one Mexican kid’
The District has had police in its schools since 2003, either through the Española Police Department or the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, and private security before that.
The Department reportedly started its relationship with the District in February 2003 when an officer first got a permanent assignment at Española Valley High School, “to be visible and act as a deterrent to illegal activities,” as the Rio Grande SUN put it later that May, when the program first appeared in the newspaper.
The SUN quoted a “Commander Khalsa,” who was not given a first name in the story, as saying that former Department officer James Bustamante’s presence helped his guards who worked at the High School through a contract with the now-massive private security firm Akal Security.
“I believe it’s a very good program for students who want to come to school and feel safe,” Bustamante told the SUN.
In March 2002, High School administrators had reportedly canceled classes because of a fight involving about 20 students, four of whom were suspended and faced expulsion. Former District superintendent Wilfred Martinez was quoted as saying he would increase the number of security guards on duty from six to nine, and they would begin searching all cars entering campus.
That September, the number of fights and reported incidents of use of illegal drugs and truancy was lower than the same period two years earlier. None of the reported cases involved weapons.
Then in September 2003, John Bird, the middle school principal at the time, said the fights there were just altercations between individuals rather than a collective free-for-all, and that parents and teachers thought the situation was already being handled. Students were not using weapons, he reportedly told the Board’s Safety and Security Committee.
Even so, the Board gave him and other principals the power to recommend suspensions and long-term expulsions “to deal with instigators of gang violence and students who bring weapons to school.”
That same month, former High School principal Andrew Rendon reportedly blamed the violence on “this one Mexican kid” who he said could “clap his hands and there are several kids ready to go.”
From that point forward, the Española School Board set aside $48,400 each year to pay for two Española police officers’ salaries, overtime, training and equipment.
The Board’s decision was part of an expansion of police presence in schools across the country. An analysis of federal Department of Education data in 2016 found there were 1.7 million students in U.S. schools with police but no counselors, 3 million in schools with police but no nurses, 6 million in schools with police but no school psychologists and 10 million in schools with police but no social workers.
In May 2019, now-former County Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Barnes’ tasing of a 15-year-old student with special needs at the High School made national headlines.
A grand jury indicted Barnes that November, and the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office charged him with abuse of a child, false imprisonment, aggravated battery and violation of ethical principles of public service.
The family of the student who was tased sued the District and the County and settled for $1.3 million. Insurance paid the family $941,667 on behalf of the County, while the County paid $33,333 from its General Fund. The District paid $300,000.
The County’s insurance provider OneBeacon will not be bidding for the County’s insurance policy in the coming year, mostly because of the lawsuit that followed the tasing, County Manager Tomas Campos said.
“Policing at its core, it’s a white supremacist institution, and I believe it needs to be abolished,” Medina said. “Instead of policing, we need to focus our funds on education, health care, mental health care and other social programs.”