Torrez: School discipline disparities would be priority for new civil rights division

Print More
A school bus takes students home in rural New Mexico. Image: Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez wants the Legislature to make explicit his power to investigate possible civil rights violations in New Mexico, with a focus first on children, including racial disparities in school discipline and problems at the state’s troubled child welfare department.

Torrez cited recent reports of a “pattern of disparate penalties or discipline meted out to various groups, particularly Native American students,” as well as “some very serious issues” at the state Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to explain why he has urged the Legislature to create a civil rights division within the Attorney General’s office. 

“We need to get directly involved in protecting the civil rights of our citizens,” Torrez said in a February interview with New Mexico In Depth. “Our first priority will be looking at children.” 

New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported in December 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.

A spokesperson for Torrez told the news organizations in December those findings were alarming and that as attorney general he would seek legislation to codify his powers to pursue civil rights cases. 

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, to create the civil rights division, pushing the bill a step closer to passage as the legislative session winds down. The bill now heads to the House floor with 48 hours left before lawmakers gavel to a close. If the House approves the bill, the Senate must agree to amendments by the House before it heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for her signature. 

“As with all bills, we are following this legislation’s path through the process and will evaluate the final measure if and when it passes,” Lujan Grisham’s spokeswoman, Maddy Hayden, said after Thursday’s committee hearing.

Torrez told lawmakers on the committee that the goal is to focus on civil rights violations by government agencies, not by private individuals. “It’s specifically focused on accountability for CYFD, school districts, other political subdivisions and any leaders of those institutions,” he said. 

Although the Attorney General’s Office has broad authority to protect the interests of New Mexicans, Torrez told New Mexico In Depth in February it has never tested how that applies to civil rights. “We are prepared to take action and get authority from the courts,” he said. “However, a clear mandate from the legislature solidifies that authority.”

Attorneys general in other states already routinely pursue civil rights cases, Torrez said. “We are actually one of the few states — let’s say blue states — in the country that doesn’t have a well-established civil rights unit,” he said.

“We’d have the ability to engage in the more traditional civil rights work that has happened at the United States Department of Justice for several decades: racial discrimination, discrimination based on ethnicity or origin, sexual orientation, gender,” Torrez said.

Torrez declined to say which school districts his office would investigate for civil rights violations, but he said districts engaged in racially disparate student discipline should know they would be investigated if they didn’t correct such disparities on their own.

Gallup-McKinley Superintendent Mike Hyatt has not answered the news organizations’ questions or directly addressed the higher rate of long-term removals for Native students than their white peers within his district. He refuted the story’s findings to the local school board, saying that district staff and teachers “do their best to support our students and do our best to educate students.” He later denied to local media that the district more frequently expels Native students, saying most of what his district reported to the state as expulsions in recent years should have been classified instead as suspensions

But an analysis by the news organizations found that long-term student removals from school are much more frequent at Gallup-McKinley, whether they are called expulsions or suspensions. 

Hyatt did not respond to emails from New Mexico In Depth asking for his response to the Attorney General’s goals for the new division. 

The New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) tracks disciplinary disparities only among special education students, and it defines racial disparities as a five-fold or worse difference in suspension or expulsion rates, for at least three years in a row. But Torrez wouldn’t necessarily rely on PED’s definition of disciplinary disparities to start an investigation, he said. 

His office would establish a reasonable threshold for determining if disparities exist by examining best practices in the field, Torrez said. “We will be taking a fresh look at all of these questions, quite frankly, and we will look not only at data from across the state, but across the country,” he said. 

A spokesperson for the PED declined to comment on the bill, Torrez’s plans, or whether a civil rights division at the AG’s office would overlap with PED’s existing legal authority to protect students from racially-disparate punishments. 

When it comes to the state Children, Youth and Families Department, Torrez said his office will investigate “whether or not they’re compliant with meeting the constitutional safeguards for children.”

The Legislature is motivated to take action on behalf of children, with legislation creating an independent Child Advocate position attached to the Attorney General’s Office on the cusp of passing as the legislative session winds down. A long troubled, chronically understaffed agency, CYFD most recently faces a federal lawsuit, filed in early December, over its failure to remove a 4-year-old boy from the home of his mother and her roommate after the boy told a CYFD worker he was being physically and sexually abused by the roommate. The roommate pleaded guilty last year to abuse leading to the boy’s death. Other recent reports also chronicled CYFD’s ongoing failure to place children in foster homes rather than homeless shelters, and an allegation last month that a teen foster youth sexually assaulted a foster child in CYFD offices.

“The civil rights of every child must be protected, and that’s what we are committed to doing,” Barbara Vigil, CYFD cabinet secretary, said in a statement to New Mexico In Depth on Tuesday. Vigil said the agency looks forward to partnering with the Attorney General to ensure the civil rights of children are protected.

CYFD raised concerns in a fiscal impact report prepared by legislative staff that the proposed division would impact its administrative performance and costs. 

Leave a Reply