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Armed School Guards And Too Few Counselors Spark Concerns In Rio Rancho

Hannah Colton/KUNM
Alexis Jimenez is a concerned grandmother of two students in Rio Rancho Public Schools.

School districts in New Mexico have options when it comes to trying to protect students and staff from violence. Rio Rancho Public Schools recently rolled out armed security guards, and not everyone is happy with that decision.

Outside a school board meeting last week, KUNM spoke with Alexis Jimenez, who has two grandkids in Rio Rancho Public Schools.

“I understand people are scared,” said Jimenez, “but I don’t know why they think more guns on campus will make them safer, because it simply won’t.”

Jimenez is a woman of color, and she’s very aware of the fact that Hispanic, Native American and black students are more likely to face harsh discipline than their white peers.

“The parents of color understand that their children are in more danger, I mean, just on a daily basis,” said Jimenez. “I can just see someone more willing to use a weapon on a child of color, or a special needs child.”

A 16-year-old student fired a gun inside Rio Rancho’s Sue Cleveland High School last month. No one was hurt, but police found a note about killing people in his pocket.

Credit Hannah Colton / KUNM Public Radio
KUNM Public Radio
Rio Rancho's Sue Cleveland High School

Jimenez fears that if there had been an armed guard at the school that day, the shooter – or other students – might have been shot.

Mike Baker, Chief Operations Officer at RRPS, says officers were able to use nonviolent strategies to quickly get the shooter into custody.

“The officers didn’t use deadly force. They used verbal commands to try to gain compliance,” said Baker, “and they did get compliance. Hence, there was no force used because it didn’t need to be used.”

Baker, who’s a former Rio Rancho police chief, says the district has devoted $350,000 dollars to arming school security officers. There are a dozen of them now on patrol with 9 mm semi-automatic handguns. The district also plans to install gunshot detection systems.

These are examples of what’s called “hardening” approaches to school safety – ways to make schools harder targets. A recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that use of these measures are on the rise nationwide, despite a lack of evidence that they make schools any safer.

The ACLU’s top recommendation is to add more so-called "softening" measures. They focus on school climate and hiring more mental health staff to identify and help troubled students.

Jerry Reeder, who oversees special education psychologists and social workers in RRPS, says in recent years he’s seen in an increase in students’ mental health needs.

“Yes, I do think there’s a larger need for mental health globally,” Reeder said. “Is it something we need to do in the schools, or is it something we do as a community? It’s probably something joint that we need to work together.”

When a student is showing signs of emotional distress or threatening behavior, Reeder says, special education staff are trained to intervene.

“We have a ‘harm to self and others’ protocol that we follow,” he said, “and based on those needs, we could go to an IEP – an Individual Education Plan – meeting. So it really depends, on a student-by-student basis, on what they need.”

The American School Counselor Association and the School Social Work Association of America recommend a ratio of one school counselor and one social worker to every 250 students. Rio Rancho, like most districts in the state, falls far short of that. The district has around half that many providers - 38.5 counselors, 27 social workers and 9 psychologists district-wide for a student population of nearly 17,700.

And the strategy to go “hard” on school safety seems to keep winning out. Lawmakers passed four bills this session focused on things like ramping up security and active shooter drills; several were introduced by Rio Rancho's Sen. Craig Brandt.

Lawmakers rejected four bills that aimed to put more nurses, social workers and other support staff in schools.*

Desiree Sowers is the mother of two Rio Rancho teenagers. Her son was evacuated from Cleveland High School in that incident last month. Her family didn’t know the shooter personally, but she says that 16-year-old has been on her mind.

“It’s a young man who was struggling, obviously, and needs a lot more support than what he was getting,” said Sowers. “I also see him as a child in crisis.”

Sowers, who worked for decades as a primary care nurse, views violence in schools as a public health issue.

“There’s a lot more violence and bullying and stuff going on in schools that has nothing to do with a gun,” said Sowers. “For me, it’s a much broader perspective of school culture – do kids feel like they belong? Do they want to be there? Do they feel supported? Do they trust adults?”

Low self-esteem, poor coping skills, rejection, isolation – these can be warning signs for violence, but they’re also just hard facts of life that lots of young people need help dealing with.

That’s why, for Sowers, school safety isn’t about guns. It’s about kids getting the social and emotional supports they need before they get desperate.

*2019 Legislative outcomes for school safety-related bills:

“Hardening” measures

“Softening” measures

Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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