FRI: Half Of NM Students Return To In-Person Classes, A Third NM Man Charged In Insurrection, + More

Apr 23, 2021

At Least Half Of New Mexico Students Take In-Person Classes – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

State education officials said at least half of New Mexico’s K-12 students ventured into a classroom for at least one day last week, as vaccinations become easier to get for people 16 and older.

About 160,500 students were recorded as attending school in person, or about half of the state’s total K-12 enrollment, according to state data made public Wednesday. With only 80% of districts and charters reporting, the number was probably higher.

State education officials asked school districts and charters to reopen to full-time, in-person learning on April 5th. A small number have not reopened due to tribal health orders.

Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said only 17 of the state's 840 schools have had to close because of virus concerns since widespread reopening began on April 5.

Stewart called it a good sign that safety protocols are working as intended, and in-person learning can proceed with only minimal and temporary disruptions.

Enrollment and in-person attendance data is not made available for all schools, however, in-person attendance from last week was released by Albuquerque Public Schools for each of its campuses, which serve about one in every five New Mexico students attending K-12. Over 50% attended in-person classes.

In-person attendance was lower at high schools in Albuquerque compared with middle and elementary schools. It ranged from 18% at West Mesa High School to 87% at Early College Academy. Neither high school responded to requests for comment.

The attendance rates were highest at Albuquerque elementary schools, with as many as 98% of students returning to classrooms at some schools.

Employee Of Defense Contractor Faces Charges In Capitol Riot – Associated Press

A Santa Fe man who works for a defense contractor faces criminal charges for his acknowledged presence inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot.

Authorities say Matthew Martin, who holds a security clearance, told the FBI in an interview that he had gone to Washington after reading then-President Donald Trump’s tweets about election fraud claims and acknowledged he was inside the Capitol building during the attack.

The FBI said Martin claimed Capitol guards opened the doors for people to walk into the Capitol rotunda and he later realized that the events at the Capitol were worse than he initially thought. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request Friday for the name of Martin’s employer.

Kitren Fischer, an attorney representing Martin, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on her client’s behalf early Friday afternoon.

Martin is the third New Mexican to be charged in the events surrounding the Capitol riot.

Otero County Commissioner Couy Griffin, who is also founder of the group Cowboys for Trump, was arrested after he was captured on video on the Capitol steps during the attack.

Griffin’s lawyer has said his client didn’t enter the building. Griffin has denied allegations that he knowingly entered barricaded areas with the intent to disrupt Congress as it considered Electoral College results.

Shawn Bradley Witzemann of Farmington told authorities he was inside the Capitol during the riot as part of his work in livestreaming video at protests and has since claimed he was there as a journalist, according to court records.

Authorities said Witzemann, who takes part in a podcast called “The Armenian Council for Truth in Journalism,” walked into the Capitol, made his way to the building’s rotunda and shot video with his phone until an officer told him to leave.

Navajo Students Describe Pandemic Struggles To Jill Biden – Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Students on the country’s largest Native American reservation spoke to first lady Jill Biden on Friday about challenges they've faced during the coronavirus pandemic, including poor internet service and feelings of isolation.

The hourlong discussion took place at Hunters Point Boarding School, a small, aging grade school in St. Michaels, on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation capital.

The visit came as the first lady wrapped up a three-day tour of the U.S. Southwest, where she stopped at coronavirus vaccination clinics in New Mexico and Arizona and met with female tribal leaders who shared their concerns about the needs of the Navajo people.

The handful of students who spoke to the first lady were from schools in the area surrounding Window Rock.

Each of them explained there were times when they couldn’t get online for classes on the vast reservation.

Biden told them help was on the way for broadband through her husband's administration.

Across the Navajo Nation, students have been learning remotely, some given flash drives with schoolwork or paper packets if they have no access to computers. The tribe has maintained strict COVID-19 restrictions after having one of the country’s highest per-capita infection rates early on in the pandemic.

School buses have become Wi-Fi hotspots and delivered food to students’ homes, or a central location when they couldn’t navigate dirt roads that turn into a muddy, rutted mess when it rains or snows.

Biden said she feels for students who have struggled during the pandemic with losing loved ones, attending classes via Zoom and finding a sense of community. She encouraged them to keep journals.

State Pays $200,000 To Inmate Injured In 2017 Prison Riot – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A prison inmate who survived having his throat slashed in a 2017 cellblock riot has reached a financial settlement with the state of New Mexico to resolve accusations of negligence against a private prison operator and the state Corrections Department.

Settlement documents posted on a state clearinghouse website this week show that Samuel A. Sanchez has been awarded $200,000 to settle demands related to pain and suffering and allegations of negligence in the hiring, supervision and training of a prison guard.

In his lawsuit, Sanchez accused GEO Group and the Corrections Department of negligence after a convicted serial killer persuaded a lone, 22-year-old prison guard to open a cell door, setting off chaos in a 40-inmate cellblock. The lawsuit cited inadequate staffing across the facility.

Sanchez was set upon by two other inmates who slit his neck. He was hospitalized and eventually recovered.

Prosecutors initially filed criminal charges of assisting in an escape against the prison guard who opened the cell door for Clifton Bloomfield, a convicted murderer sentenced in connection with five killings in Albuquerque. Authorities said the guard was overpowered, and Bloomfield used keys to release other inmates who overran the cellblock.

The charges were later dropped in negotiations after the guard alleged in his own lawsuit that he was made a scapegoat after being placed alone in a cellblock for hardened, dangerous criminals without proper training or certification.

The Corrections Department wound down contracts with GEO Group and took over direct management of the prison at Clayton in November 2019, during the first year of the administration of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Albuquerque Seeks $200K From Trump Campaign For Security – The Albuquerque Journal, KOB-TV, Associated Press

The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has referred former President Donald Trump's campaign to a collection agency over nonpayment of a bill related to security costs for a campaign rally he held in 2019.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the bill for $211,175.94 covers security costs stemming from Trump's overnight stay in Albuquerque before the rally in Rio Rancho on Sept. 16, 2019.

The costs include blocking access to parts of downtown, paying overtime for police officers and covering paid time off for city workers who had to stay home.

“We actually treated it like any other debt, and so it goes through a somewhat process where you send a bunch of letters out,” Keller said. “We got no response from those letters. And then automatically, it does go to an agency that helps try and collect debts.”

City spokesperson Lorena Sanchez said the city resent the bill originally addressed to New York-based Donald J. Trump for President Inc. to a new address at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Sanchez said the collections agency is still pursing the issue.

Keller appeared on the Daily Show and said he does not expect the collections agency to get any money from Trump.

“I don’t really expect us to get paid,” he said. “But it’s important that we do, and you know, we would do it for anyone else, so he’s no different.”

The Albuquerque Journal reported that the Trump campaign told Public Integrity in 2020 that the U.S. Secret Service — not the campaign – should get the bills for public safety costs associated with rallies. The Secret Service said it does not receive funding for such expenses.

KOB-TV reached out to the Trump campaign to find out if it plans on paying Albuquerque. The campaign replied with an email that stated the campaign is “reviewing your request.”

New Mexico Among States Grappling To Reform Policing - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

In the aftermath of George Floyd's death and protests that followed, state lawmakers in New Mexico have eliminated police immunity from prosecution in state courts and enacted a flurry of reforms aimed at addressing racial inequities.

The conviction Tuesday of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is shifting public attention toward reform efforts in dozens of states to provide greater police accountability. At the same time, many states have done little or nothing around police and racial justice reforms, or moved in the opposite direction.

New Mexico reined in police immunity from prosecution over the objections of local law enforcement agencies and county governments that can now be held liable financially in local courts for police brutality. Individual public employees are not subject to financial liability.

At the same time, legislation aimed at instilling greater accountability in the police disciplinary and certification process encountered stiff resistance and extensive revisions only to be vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She said that the final bill would have eliminated two seats on a law enforcement training board that provide civilian oversight.

Another bill fell flat that would have established statewide standards for the use of deadly force and new de-escalation training.

Albuquerque has strived for years to rein in police brutality and implement reforms under a consent decree with the Department of Justice.

The state's Democrat-led legislature also pushed through a prohibition on discrimination based on traditional hairstyles and head coverings, and a new law requiring anti-racism training for public school personnel.

Police can no longer conduct spot searches based on the smell of cannabis in New Mexico, under a bill signed this month to legalize recreational cannabis. Home-grown pot and possession of up to 2 ounces (56 grams) of marijuana becomes legal on June 29.

The anti-immunity bill, signed by Lujan Grisham with the trial of Chauvin underway, opens the way for civil rights lawsuits in state courts against public employees ranging from sheriff's deputies to school teachers. That's broader than similar legislation enacted in Colorado and Connecticut.

Jill Biden To Visit Tribal School Still Teaching Remotely Felicia Fonseca, Assosiated Press

A small grade school on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation capital is ready for students to return.

Staff at Hunters Point Boarding School in St. Michaels have repainted the building, upgraded the washer and dryer in the dorms, installed a security gate, placed plexiglass between beds and installed hand-washing stations.

Now, they are ready to show it off and talk about what else they can use as First Lady Jill Biden wraps up a three-day tour on Friday of the U.S. Southwest. High on the list is internet service and a new building to replace the one built in the 1960s.

Genevieve Jackson, who sits on the school board, said on windy days, the internet is "questionable" and has caused delays for standardized, online testing. Some of the school's equipment dates back more than a half-century, she said. 

"We are a very poor nation and (Joe Biden) recognizes that we're an impoverished nation," she said. "We're rich in culture and our teachings, but we need to catch up to the modern day of 2021. We need to be at par with all of the other private schools. We feel like we've been left out." 

Hunters Point falls under the U.S. Bureau of Education, which oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states but directly operates less than one-third of them. Hunters Point is among those run by tribes or tribal organizations under contract with the federal government.

The schools have a tainted 19th century legacy from when Native American children were taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools. They are among the nation's lowest performing, and have struggled with issues such as shoddy facilities.

Few people have been on the Hunters Point campus in the past year amid the pandemic. 

Across the Navajo Nation, students have been learning remotely, some given flash drives with school work or paper packets if they have no access to computers. School buses have become Wi-Fi hotspots and delivered food to students' homes or at a central location when they couldn't navigate dirt roads that turn into a muddy, rutted mess when it rains or snows.

Virgilynn Denzpi, an educator at a school in the Window Rock area, was standing alongside the road Thursday hoping to get a glimpse of Jill Biden. She's hopeful Biden, who also is an educator, will understand the challenges teachers on the reservation have encountered during the pandemic.

"We've been so stressed out and overworked," Denzpi said. "It's like being a frontline worker, we're the unsung heroes. I just wish the kids were back in the classrooms."

Biden is expected to meet with a handful of students before visiting a vaccination site Friday.

In a normal year, students at Hunters Point stay in the dorms during the week and are bussed home on the weekends. Many come from single-parent families who struggle financially, Jackson said.

The school that serves kindergarten to fifth grade has used money from a federal virus relief package to provide laptops for students, and equipment for teachers to instruct remotely.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority estimates that expanding broadband across the 27,000-square mile (70,000 square-kilometer) reservation would cost more than $220 million. Tribal lawmakers like Daniel Tso said they realize they need to be more systematic in how to allocate the next round of federal virus relief funding.

Jackson said she's hopeful students at Hunters Point can return in the fall with the same opportunities as students in bigger cities. 

"We are producing tomorrow's leaders, so we all share that dream and hope," she said.

Biden spent the first day of her trip to the Navajo Nation on Thursday listening to female tribal leaders whom she referred to as her "sister warriors" about the broader needs on the country's largest Native American reservations.

The trip is Biden's third to the vast reservation — which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and a corner of Utah — and her inaugural visit as first lady. She vowed to work with the Navajo Nation and all tribal nations, in a recognition of their inherent sovereignty and political relationship with the United States.

New Mexico Expands Child-Wellness Campus In Albuquerque - Associated Press

A shift of roughly 500 workers to the campus in recent years should result in savings of $3.1 million annually, the General Services Department estimates.

Recent renovations at a cost of $29 million include upgrades to climate-control systems, roof replacements, interior remodeling and playground construction. 

An earlier phase of construction, completed in 2018 at a cost of $20 million in purchase and renovation costs, provided modern facilities for receiving children into state custody, in some instances after traumatic experiences or abuse.

A third and final phase of construction is planned that will provide workspace for 50 employees of the recently founded Early Childhood Education and Care Department and as many as 18 workers for the Veterans Service Department.

General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz said the investments have been significant and "will pay off ... in improved services for New Mexico families."