A public health journalist and frequent contributor to The Lancet's medical journal news desks, Bryant Furlow's previous reporting has included investigations into racial profiling at an Albuquerque maternity hospital, lax state regulation of the health insurance industry, rural ambulance response times following EMS budget cuts, the nursing home industry's fight against pandemic response plan requirements, and the off-label sedation of jail inmates with prescription psychiatric drugs — a practice that led to a regional street trade, overdoses and deaths in northern N.M. He covered the COVID-19 pandemic through 2020 for New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, and racial disparities in school discipline in 2022, as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.Contact Bryant at [email protected] or text/Signal him at (505) 440-0055.
Falling Short: Rebuilding elderly care in rural America Rural nursing homes across the country, already understaffed, face significant new federal staffing requirements. With on-the-ground reporting from INN’s Rural News Network and data analysis assistance from USA TODAY and Big Local News at Stanford University, eight newsrooms, including New Mexico In Depth, explore what the rule change would look like for residents in communities across America. Support from The National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Foundation made the project possible. New federal staffing standards meant to improve the care of millions of Americans in nursing homes could go into effect in as soon as two years. New Mexico’s nursing homes aren’t ready.
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez is opening an investigation into disproportionately harsh punishment of Native American children by Gallup McKinley County Schools.
New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported in December 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.
The district, which includes large swaths of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, enrolls a quarter of the state’s Native students but was responsible for at least three-quarters of Native expulsions, according to student discipline data. The district’s annual expulsion rate was 4.6 per 1,000 students, at least 10 times as high as the rest of the state during the four school years ending in 2020.
Superintendent Mike Hyatt disputed those findings, claiming his district 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 the news outlets confirmed.
Gallup McKinley officials did not respond this week to questions about Torrez’s intention to investigate the district’s discipline disparities. The Attorney General’s office has traditionally defended public bodies accused of wrongdoing, rather than investigate them. Torrez, who took office in January, expressed dismay that it’s taken this long for the Attorney General’s office to investigate agencies and school districts suspected of violating New Mexicans’ civil rights.
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez wants to take over the state’s “slow progress” in reforming public education to ensure all children are sufficiently educated as required by a landmark 2018 court ruling. The judge in that lawsuit found the state had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learners, disabled and low-income children.
“There is frustration with the lack of progress over the past five years,” Torrez told New Mexico In Depth on Friday. “We’ve informed the governor’s office that we intend to resume control over the Yazzie-Martinez litigation.”
Since the 2018 ruling, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has resisted efforts for deep reforms to public education sought by plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a coalition of advocacy organizations pushing for changes. In 2020, it asked a state judge to end court oversight of the case, saying the state had fully complied with the 2018 ruling. The judge denied that request, however, saying oversight should stay in place until long-term reforms are adopted.Caroline Sweeney, spokesperson for Lujan Grisham, defended her administration’s work to resolve the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, pointing to significantly increased public school funding, the creation of new state agencies focused on special and early education, and increasing required instructional hours.
On a brisk February morning with snow on the ground, children arrived at Tsé Bit A’í Middle School in Shiprock, on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico. Word in the hallway was something was afoot: Substitute teachers were waiting in each classroom.
The children’s 35 regular teachers were spotted, sitting in a large circle in the library. Students paused at the doorway to watch. The teachers, along with school counselors, were training in a new disciplinary approach, often referred to as “restorative justice,” which seeks to rebuild relationships, not simply punish the student who caused the harm. It’s a model New Mexico’s state education department has begun testing with a pilot project in a few other school districts.
Rooted in the belief that everybody has a role to play in addressing harm, restorative justice largely relies on people talking and listening carefully to one another.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham killed a bill Friday that would have strengthened Attorney General Raúl Torrez’s authority to protect children’s rights and address racial disparities in how schools discipline children. The AG’s office defends state agencies accused of wrongdoing, but Torrez had wanted a new Civil Rights Division to investigate abuses by state agencies, school districts and other public bodies. Attorneys general in other states pursue civil rights cases, he noted. Both chambers of the Legislature listened, passing the bill in the final week of the legislative session. Days before the deadline for acting on legislation, Lujan Grisham expressed mixed feelings about the legislation, saying prosecutors already have tools to investigate neglect and abuse, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
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.
A child plays in an activity area of the New Mexico PreK class at Berrendo Elementary in Roswell. Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth
New Mexico lawmakers are debating a bill that would curtail expulsions and out-of-school suspensions for the state’s youngest students. National studies show that children in child care and preschool programs are at least three times more likely than older children to be expelled. The bill would bar out-of-school suspensions for children younger than 8 years old, except in cases where the child threatened, attempted or caused bodily injury to another individual that was not in self-defense. And none of those suspensions would be allowed to exceed three days.
This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories from ProPublica like this one as soon as they are published. And sign up here for New Mexico In Depth stories. Gabriella Trujillo, special to ProPublica
Over the four academic years ending in spring 2020, Gallup-McKinley County Schools reported to New Mexico officials that it had expelled students at least 211 times, far more often than school districts in the rest of the state. Yet on Jan.
Legislative Finance Committee analysts described over reliance on emergency procurement as resulting from mismanagement in their October report. Legislative analysts have repeatedly warned since 2016 that government agencies’ increasing reliance on no-bid contracting puts New Mexico at increased risk of waste and fraud. Their most recent admonition came a month after a state grand jury indicted a former powerful lawmaker for racketeering, money laundering and kickbacks related to a no-bid contract.
Lawmakers have largely ignored those warnings; in fact, a bill pre-filed for the legislative session starting Tuesday in Santa Fe appears to create new exemptions to the procurement code. Nor is reform a high priority for Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose three years in office have been marked by a sharp rise in no-bid contracting.
“Such an item is not currently an element of the agenda,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, who has the power to set this year’s 30-day legislative agenda, as lawmakers are otherwise limited to budget matters. “But the governor’s office will, as always, review and evaluate potential initiatives.”
Since 2019, Lujan Grisham’s first year in office, her administration has circumvented competitive bidding on at least 886 occasions, approving sole-source and emergency contracts worth more than $796 million, greatly outpacing her Republican predecessor, according to New Mexico In Depth’s analysis of reports from state agencies under Lujan Grisham’s control.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the limits of New Mexico’s understaffed and highly centralized public health system.
Unlike most other states, New Mexico does not have county-based health boards. Instead, public health services like vaccination have traditionally fallen to the chronically understaffed state health department, which has struggled to contain the pandemic’s spread. “The big lesson is that we’ve underfunded public health,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “Our infrastructure was woefully inadequate and now we’re paying the price.”
That includes funding for the state’s 42 county and tribal comprehensive community health planning councils that, in the absence of local health boards, fill an important role identifying local public health gaps and needs. Many of the health councils have gone beyond their statutory mandates, in recent months, to pitch in with local COVID response efforts – helping to coordinate local testing and vaccination efforts, get word out to local residents about where they can get booster shots, and at times serving as an important channel of communication between state health officials and local governments.
But the health councils are woefully underfunded, despite legislation passed in 2019 that expanded their mandates and directed the health department to provide them more funding.