Amid grief and fear, borderland kids return to school, a different world

Last year, after a young man shot up Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Las Cruces Public Schools added security guards to its elementary schools. 

It had already begun fortifying school buildings in response to earlier mass shootings. 

As the school year starts in Las Cruces, it is drill season. Over the next month, once a week students and teachers will practice lock-down, shelter in place, evacuation and fire drills, said Sean Barham, associate director of operations for public safety at LCPS. 

But looming over them will be Saturday’s slaughter less than 50 miles down the interstate in El Paso, a city where many have strong family or cultural ties and where many of the victims looked like the students returning to school this week in Doña Ana County. Barham knows this year’s drills could evoke deeper anxiety. “You’ve got to give them the skills they need,” he said. “You also have to balance it out because you want kids to want to come to school and feel safe.” 

Security measures have been increased at Las Cruces Public Schools campuses in the wake of school shootings across the U.S. This notice is at Jornada Elementary School’s front entrance.

Secrecy at NM federal court appears unchanged

A longstanding culture of secrecy in New Mexico’s federal courts appears unchanged after a pair of New Mexico In Depth stories exposed it last fall and one of the state’s leading government transparency advocates called for change. We’re using the word “appears” because neither the court nor the big, publicly funded and mandated law firms that practice there every day have answered NMID’s questions for this story yet. (After our inquiries, the court clerk said the chief judge has agreed to an interview in a couple weeks.) 

But using a court records searching trick we learned last year, NMID did a little spot checking to see how much access the public has in cases where people’s freedom is nearly always on the line. The picture doesn’t look any better than last year. More on that later.

Agreement on NM probation, parole reforms seems stuck in the mud

Lawmakers and prosecutors appear as far apart as ever on reform proposals for New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham admonishing them to find common ground in April. That’s when the first-term Democratic governor vetoed a reform bill — with significant consternation — that would have shifted the systems away from incarceration as a first resort and likely seen significantly fewer people returning to prison and jail. 

The disagreements center largely on who should be locked back up for violating their probation and who should not, and a change that would have required the Parole Board to issue detailed, written findings when it denies someone’s release after 30 years behind bars. If changes favored by legislators become law, potentially thousands of people in New Mexico who are currently locked up would remain under state supervision, but not behind bars. It could burden the justice system, creating the need for new jobs and monitoring mechanisms, but also save the public millions in lock-up costs, legislative analysts say. Lawmakers have pushed the changes because they say a shift toward rehabilitation and providing services to lower-level offenders can help them turn their lives around and stay out of the justice system.

More parents will get help with child care under CYFD proposal

A toddler waits while her companions finish an Easter cake for students at Bright Beginnings Child Development Center in Jal, NM. More New Mexico families will qualify for child care assistance without being wait-listed, and could stay longer on the program under proposed rules posted Monday by the Children Youth and Families Department. Under current eligibility limits put in place in the wake of a lawsuit against CYFD, families can qualify and stay on the child care program if they make less than two times the federal poverty level, but not one dollar more. The proposal would take the exit point up to 250% of the poverty level. 

To put the changes in perspective, a single mother with two children could make up to $42,660 per year and qualify, and could keep getting child care assistance with increasing co-pays until she earned $53,325. About 90 percent of child care assistance recipients are single-parent households.

Planning for Early Education agency underway

There is still no secretary of Early Childhood Education and Care, but the process to launch New Mexico’s newest department is up and running with help from a $5.4 million federal preschool grant. That’s what lawmakers heard Thursday at a meeting of the Legislative Education Study Committee. “We joke that the stars aligned when this grant came about,” said Alejandra Rebolledo Rea, director of Early Childhood Services for the Children Youth and Families Department. The one-year planning grant is meant to create a comprehensive early education plan for New Mexico children from birth to age 5. When it was approved by the federal government in March, talk immediately turned to the idea of using the grant for the new early childhood department being debated in the Legislature.

Lujan Grisham ouster of Trujillo raises questions

Karen Trujillo, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pick for secretary of public education, speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Santa Fe. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decision to fire Education Secretary Karen Trujillo on Monday took a lot of people in New Mexico by surprise, including Trujillo, who said she was blindsided. 

It’s been three days, and some New Mexicans suspect they haven’t been given the real reason Trujillo was fired and why now. 

The administration has said it was about her ability to communicate, manage and meet the governor’s expectations for transforming public education in New Mexico. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

A spokesman initially pointed to the shaky rollout of a signature education program called K-5 Plus across the state, but the administration is beginning to walk back an effort to pin the firing on implementation of that program. Trujillo had pushed back, saying she didn’t get much direction from the governor and that she had raised alarm early on about how difficult K-5 Plus would be to implement immediately, as designed by the Legislature. 

And Trujillo said if communication was deficient, it was on the part of the governor. 

“It would have been nice to have a conversation with the governor where she said what her concerns were so that I could have done something about them, but that conversation never took place,” Trujillo said. Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s director of communications, said Trujillo heard from top administration officials from the governor’s office, including Lujan Grisham herself, about the governor’s frustration with her communications skills and leadership at the Public Education Department — and that Trujillo’s pushback comes from someone “with an axe to grind.”

 “This was not infrequent communication.

Trump tweets beg the question, what kind of country do we want?

I wrote the following essay for NMID’s weekly newsletter and am posting it on NMID because I believe we as a country must have a conversation about race. Our president, and his actions, are forcing us to. In a democracy, which relies on a vigorous competition of ideas and viewpoints, one of journalism’s duties is to prompt and join in on discussions about uncomfortable subjects. And race, at least for a significant portion of our country’s population, is uncomfortable.  Hopefully this essay will invite such a discussion. Feel free to comment, but keep it respectful.

No Epstein Indictment Here, For Now

Aerial image of the house and helicopter pad on Zorro Ranch. Investigators with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office plan to turn over any information they gather about alleged sex crimes committed here by Jeffrey Epstein to federal prosecutors “as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the AG says. That means, for now, Attorney General Hector Balderas’ team is working as fact-gatherer for the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, where Epstein pleaded not guilty last week to charges of sex trafficking of minors and sex trafficking conspiracy, says Matt Baca, senior counsel for Balderas’ office. “At this point it’s primarily been communication between the two offices,” Baca tells Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth on Wednesday. “As soon as we’re done, or at a place where we feel like we have significant investigative materials to turn over to them, we plan to do that.”

He says the AG isn’t working on an indictment here, but noted “nothing is off the table in terms of possible state-level charges.”

Baca confirms that “two or more” women have told prosecutors in New Mexico they are victims of Epstein, who owns the massive Zorro Ranch in southern Santa Fe County.

Children and pregnant women no longer allowed in solitary confinement in NM

A long-sought set of reforms to the way New Mexico jailers and prison officials use solitary confinement kicked in July 1, barring the practice for certain populations and starting the clock on what civil rights advocates and lawmakers hope will lead to unprecedented transparency on the controversial practice in the state. Effectively immediately, pregnant women and children can no longer be held in solitary, and beginning in November prisons and jails around the state will start publicly reporting how many people are being held in solitary. Insufficient data has for years frustrated lawmakers’ and others’ ability to understand the scale at which solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons. 

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of  House Bill 364 during the legislative session that concluded in March, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and officials who run the 33 county jails across New Mexico, reminding them of the new statute’s requirements. Among the changes is the state’s first universal definition for solitary confinement: holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.”

Previously, jails and prisons were using a patchwork set of labels and standards to categorize solitary confinement, often frustrating lawmakers’ and others’ efforts to snap a true picture of how the tactic was used in New Mexico. The measure required prisons and jails to stop keeping children and pregnant women in solitary — except in extremely rare instances — on July 1.

DA with six-figure salary claims poverty, judge grants her free lawyer (updated)

Editor’s note:New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.