Dozens of people turned out April 1 to discuss, sometimes passionately, even angrily, the high rates of harsh discipline of Native students meted out by the Gallup-McKinley Public Schools district.
Sponsored by news organizations New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, in collaboration with the McKinley Community Health Alliance, the turnout of about 70 people, mostly Navajo, at the University of New Mexico’s Gallup campus, showcased community interest generated by a story New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica published in December. The news outlets found that Native American students are expelled from New Mexico’s public schools far more frequently than other student groups, in large part due to practices at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district.
Gallup-McKinley, which enrolls more Native students than any other public school district in the country, has expelled children at least 10 times as often as the rest of the state in recent years. Within the district, Native students were expelled at roughly twice the rate of white students.
During a 20-minute presentation, reporter Bryant Furlow summarized the story’s findings and described how he came to focus on the Gallup-McKinley school district after he requested and analyzed school discipline data from the state Public Education Department for all New Mexico’s school districts. It was immediately clear that Native students are disproportionately expelled from school in New Mexico, he said, and data showed the district largely responsible for that disparity is Gallup-McKinley. He and a team of ProPublica reporters then drilled into the data and talked to more than 80 parents, children, teachers, and other community members in Gallup-McKinley.
Furlow then fielded questions from the crowd as speaker after speaker — some of whom had traveled into Gallup from surrounding communities — asked questions and, as often, made statements.
“There’s a lot of problems that need to be fixed,” said Miriam Begay of Navajo, New Mexico, a retired educator and Navajo Nation election official who taught a few of the individuals in the crowd. “I want our children to be successful. … the Navajo Nation itself, they need to address all the schools in their jurisdiction, they can’t just look the other way.”
Larry Foster, a longtime activist, alluded to New Mexico’s colonial history, pointing out that Navajos had to learn English in addition to their native Navajo language over the centuries.
“We mastered that English language,” Foster told the crowd. “Now discrimination is coming about, particularly in the schools.”
In the back of the room, special counsel Adolfo Mendez, appointed by New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez, listened. State lawmakers passed legislation last month creating a civil rights division in the Attorney General’s office. During committee hearings, Torrez told lawmakers that he would prioritize investigations that could lead to systemic change for the benefit of children, holding up school discipline disparities as one example of the type of investigation his office would undertake.
Following the presentation of the story’s findings, the McKinley Community Health Alliance led a discussion among those attending about the high rates of school discipline and what to do about it.
It proved to be emotionally charged for some older attendees, who spoke of reading the December story and recalling how they were beaten decades ago while attending school — and then speaking to their friends who told similar stories. At least one participant stepped outside the room after it brought up painful memories of her school experience, she said.
Members of the alliance, meanwhile, took suggestions about how to address the issue, putting up post-it notes with ideas attendees had written.