New Mexico AG says he’s going after school discipline and Yazzie-Martinez to protect children

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New Mexico In Depth's Trip Jennings interviews New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez for the public affairs show New Mexico In Focus

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said he is ready to “test the limits” of whether the state constitution gives him the authority to assume control of the state’s defense in the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court case, but hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“That is something we will do if we have to, but again my hope in this is  that we start having conversations,” Torrez said during an on-camera interview with New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico In Focus (NMiF) on Thursday. 

Last month, Torrez announced his intention to take over the landmark case due to the “slow progress” by the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in presenting a plan to reform the state’s public schools. Then-state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in 2018 — before her death the following year — that the state of New Mexico had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learning, disabled and low-income children.

In response to Torrez on Friday afternoon, Caroline Sweeney, a spokesperson for the governor, said: “We have never challenged the AG’s authority to represent the state. It is our understanding that the Attorney General has not had any conversations with leadership at the Public Education Department, and we would be happy to brief him on the exhaustive work the Department has undertaken to improve education in New Mexico.”

If the governor does decide to dispute Torrez’s bid to take over the case, it remains unclear who would settle the question, although the courts are a likely venue.

Since the ruling, Yazzie-Martinez advocates and plaintiffs have viewed the Lujan Grisham administration as resistant to making major changes to reform education. In 2020, the administration asked a state judge to end court oversight of the case, saying the state had fully complied with Singleton’s ruling. The judge denied that request, saying oversight should stay in place until long-term reforms are adopted.

The governor defends her administration’s oversight of the case by pointing out the state has dramatically increased the dollars flowing to the state’s nearly 90 local school districts since the 2018 ruling. 

But the new infusion of funding has not diminished dissatisfaction on the part of the legal team representing the Yazzie-Martinez plaintiffs. The team has “expressed frustration about the lack of a specific plan,” Torrez said, adding that there have been aspirational reports but nothing concrete from the state Public Education Department. “There is not a clear road map for progress, hitting certain milestones by certain dates.”

“One of the saddest things I’ve learned from the Yazzie-Martinez team is that there has been no effective communication,” Torrez added.

A moral obligation to protect the state’s children is a major factor driving his move to take over the case, Torrez said, adding: “Had I been in this role earlier I probably would have assumed the role of plaintiffs.”

Taking up the bat for kids includes school discipline

How school districts discipline children fits squarely into that obligation he feels to protect children as attorney general, the first-term, Democratic AG and career prosecutors told New Mexico In Depth and NMiF. That’s why he has decided to open an investigation into expulsion and long-term suspension rates of mostly Navajo students at Gallup McKinley County Schools. 

In December New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported that Native students are expelled from New Mexico public schools at a much higher rate than other children, and that Gallup McKinley, with the largest Native student population of any public school district in the U.S., is largely responsible.

“We have known for some time that there is disproportionate punishment not only in New Mexico but across the country for children of color,” the attorney general said Thursday. “We also know that the disruption of their ability to attain an education actually increases all sorts of really difficult and dangerous and likely outcomes as adults.

It’s one of the root causes for the pipeline that we have from under-resourced communities to the criminal justice system and jail.”

Torrez, who served as Bernalillo County’s district attorney before becoming attorney general, said he wants to try “to do everything that I can to limit the times that law enforcement is called upon to intervene” in violent or dangerous situations involving adults. Alluding to the school-to-prison pipeline in which students might first encounter law enforcement in a classroom setting, and then are swept into the criminal justice system, Torrez said if that means “talking to school districts about their disciplinary policies and trying to figure out whether or not there are disproportionate impacts on communities of color, that’s what we are going to do.”

Gallup McKinley Superintendent Mike Hyatt has repeatedly disputed the findings from New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, including in the lead-up to this week’s interview with Torrez. In an email to NMiF, Hyatt called the conclusions reported in December’s story “false.”

The news outlets spent months reporting and analyzing discipline data provided to the news outlets by the Public Education Department, including Gallup McKinley’s own discipline data, which it had shared with the state agency.

During that time, Hyatt and other Gallup McKinley school officials repeatedly declined requests for comment. Hyatt also chose not to respond to a 10-page letter sent nearly six weeks before publication in which the news outlets detailed their findings, requested an interview and sought any clarifications or corrections. 

In an interview with the Gallup Sun weekly newspaper earlier this year, Hyatt said his district had misreported long-term suspensions to the state Public Education Department (PED) as expulsions. But Gallup McKinley’s rate of student removals from school for 90 days or longer, regardless of what those removals were called, remained far higher than the rest of the state, an analysis by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica confirmed.

In his email to NMiF, Hyatt said his school district “has had no official notification of an investigation by the AG,” adding that “an investigation will be a waste of tax dollars.”

But in Thursday’s interview Torrez said he met with Hyatt at his office in Albuquerque on Sept. 7 after the superintendent contacted him. Torrez’s spokeswoman, Lauren Rodriguez, confirmed the meeting was at Torrez’s Albuquerque’s offices between Torrez, Hyatt, and a Santa Fe-based lobbyist, J.D. Bullington, who came to the meeting with Hyatt.

“We told them our plans,” Torrez said during the interview. “To their credit they said they were willing to provide any information and give broader context.”

The high disciplinary rates meted out by the Gallup McKinley district against mostly Navajo students has generated concern in the Gallup community, with some members of the community expressing outrage.

The attorney general said Thursday he plans to meet with the president of the Navajo Nation in the next few weeks to talk about several issues, including the high rates of expulsions and long-term suspensions at the Gallup McKinley school district.

This story was reported and published in collaboration with New Mexico in Focus, a NMID partner

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