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GMCS back in the hot seat

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Hyatt continues to deny disciplinary discrimination

In January, the Sun reported on an incident in which the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district was accused of being responsible for the majority of the state’s expulsions of Native American students from schools. Now, New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez is looking into the situation.

In an email to the Sun, the Office of the Attorney General’s Director of Communications Lauren Rodriguez explained why the AG wanted to look into the assertion.

“AG Torrez took office with a commitment to safeguarding the civil rights of children in New Mexico, including addressing educational disparities within the state,” Rodriguez said. “Our office had a representative attend community events earlier this year about the reported disciplinary discrepancies in [GMCS] and recently hired a civil rights attorney to follow up investigating these and other issues impacting educational opportunities for all of New Mexico’s children.”

GMCS Superintendent Mike Hyatt is standing by his previous statement that the assertions are untrue.

“Essentially this is a continued false narrative … that somehow our staff – who is a majority Native American in the first place – are discriminating against their own people in the discipline that they enforce,” Hyatt said.

 

BY THE NUMBERS

Reports claimed that between the 2016-2017 school year and the 2019-2020 school year, GMCS recorded at least 211 expulsions.

In December, Hyatt said that only 15 students were expelled during that time period.

“[The claim] of this mass amount of expulsions is false. We have gone back and looked at every single incident and found that there were less than 20 expulsions in the last seven years, and these were for serious offenses having to do with violence, guns, and sexual assault,” he said. “This method that they’re trying to portray as if we’re just reactionary in our discipline is also false. Staff has been trained on and worked extensively on being proactive in our discipline in the past seven years.”

However, the district believes that number is even lower than what was originally reported after they completed an internal audit of the past suspensions and expulsions.

In an interview on Sept. 6, Hyatt said they were still working to complete the audit. He said it would be complete by next week.

Hyatt said the incorrect number that he initially told the school board in January needed to be changed after district staff recently took time to thoroughly look through a former student information system that the district no longer uses.

When they looked at the data in January, Hyatt said they didn’t have complete access to the former system, calling the initial report “bad data.” Now that they have full access to the former system, Hyatt said they’re doing the internal audit so that they can give the New Mexico Department of Education accurate numbers.

The district now asserts that there have only been two expulsions and one modified expulsion in the past seven years, and they all happened in the 2022-2023 school year. A modified expulsion refers to when a student with a disability gets into severe trouble.

GMCS’s recorded expulsions rates:

One Native American student was expelled for a firearm possession

One Native American student was expelled for theft and a firearm possession

One Hispanic student who is in the Special Education program was given a modified expulsion for physically attacking others

NMPED requires that students in special education programs still receive educational services despite a suspension. According to the NMPED, “after 10 cumulative school days of removal from school in a school year, students with disabilities must continue to receive educational services.”

When it comes to long-term suspensions, which is what happens when the incident is severe enough, the student’s Individual Education Plan team determines what services the student will receive on a suspension, but a student with an IEP can never be truly expelled.

Hyatt explained how the district reports its disciplinary actions to the NMPED. All New Mexico schools must submit their disciplinary actions in the Student Teacher Accountability Supporting System. STARS is where school districts record everything from their students’ attendance to their disciplinary records.

The disciplinary section has categories and asks questions such as, ‘How many expulsions did you have?” and “How many suspensions or long-term suspensions?’

But Hyatt said STARS falls short when it comes to discipline. According to Hyatt, the form doesn’t ask every question about discipline, and the discipline categories aren’t clearly defined.

“There’s nothing in the STARS manual that says, ‘this is what an expulsion is,’ but in general an expulsion should have been – and as a district this is what we refer to now – an indefinite removal from school,” he said. “There’s no date for a student to return.”

 

DIFFERING DEFINITIONS

Hyatt said the STARS manual’s lack of a definition could lead to different districts having different definitions for disciplinary categories. He said that is what happened at GMCS.

Each principal is responsible for reporting the disciplinary records for their school, and then a secretary at the district’s central office puts them into one big document for the district. Hyatt said that multiple definitions of expulsion and suspension were initially used, and many suspensions and long-term suspensions were marked down as expulsions, hence the larger number. The data also doesn’t have to be certified.

Hyatt said part of the problem was recently found in the district’s student handbook. In the handbook, a long-term suspension shared a similar definition to an expulsion. Hyatt said that’s where a lot of the confusion could’ve happened.

The 2023-2024 GMCS Student Behavior Handbook defines a long-term suspension as “a suspension from school for more than 10 consecutive school days.” A long-term suspension requires a due process hearing at the district level. Sometimes a student who has been long-term suspended can be placed in an “alternative program.”

Whereas an expulsion is an indefinite removal from school. According to the handbook, an expulsion requires a formal long-term suspension/expulsion due process hearing at the district level. A student who is expelled may be placed in an “alternative program.” An expelled student must return back to school if the due process hearing is delayed more than 10 days until a decision is made.

Hyatt said the mistake led to lots of misinformation and made the data inapplicable when it comes to what each district in the state might define as an expulsion.

“So when we looked at the data, you’re not comparing apples to apples across the state. You’re comparing whatever that district’s definition of that category is,” he said.

The outside claim is actually what led the district to look into their data and discover the mistake.

The accusations stated that 25% of the state’s Native American students attend GMCS but at least 75% of the expulsions of Native American students came from the district.

But Hyatt argued that the amount of Native American students GMCS has skewed the data.

According to district records, the district had over 9,000 Native American students attending its schools in the 2020-2021 school year. Hyatt noted that in schools such as Crownpoint High School and Tohatchi High School, the Native American population greatly outnumbers other races.

Crownpoint High had 295 enrolled Native American students in the 2020-2021 school year, while only having two enrolled Caucasian students and seven Asian students. Tohatchi High had 265 enrolled Native American students, one African American student, and one Caucasian student in the 2020-2021 school year.

Hyatt argued that when the statistics are looked at properly, the claim that GMCS is discriminately disciplining Native Americans doesn’t hold up.

“If this was true, I’d be upset and trying to make changes, and we always are trying to do better with how we handle discipline, but I think people try to paint this narrative that discipline is bad. Well, discipline can be a very good thing also,” he said. “It’s part of trying to correct negative behavior.”

Hyatt explained that the district has also been accused of excessively calling the police. He said that is also false information.

“We have reduced referrals in the district in half than what they were prior. The claim that we call the police often is also false, we’ve only called the police when it’s a life and safety issue for our students,” Hyatt said.

According to NMPED’s disciplinary data on GMCS, which the Sun received through an Inspection of Public Records Request, GMCS had a variety of violent incidents occur in the 2021-2022 school year. They had 25 incidents where a student had a knife, 160 aggravated battery incidents, and six incidents of assault/battery with a knife.

Hyatt said this information needs to be updated as well, but that it may not be as inaccurate as the expulsion numbers.

 

NEXT STEPS

The attorney general’s office has hired a Civil Rights attorney to begin investigating cases similar to this one to look over possible educational disparities.

Hyatt and Torrez met on Sept. 7 to discuss the matter. Hyatt said he planned to explain why he believed Torrez may have been misled in the matter at hand.

Rodriguez said that at this point the AG’s office isn’t sure what the next steps of action would be in this situation.

“At this point it is too early to predict an end point for this issue; however, we are always focused on fulfilling our mission which is to safeguard the public interest and protect vulnerable members of our community,” Rodriguez said.

By Molly Ann Howell
Managing Editor

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