Bobbie Gutierrez, superintendent of Española Public Schools, on Thursday told the school board and community members the district plans policy changes requiring more extensive training for security guards and law enforcement officers stationed on campus following the May 10 tasing of a high school student by a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputy.
The district issued a statement Tuesday condemning the tasing of the teen at Española Valley High School — a boy in the district’s special-education program.
But Gutierrez, who has not spoken publicly about the incident, offered no details of the controversial incident during the public meeting Thursday evening, which was held to discuss the district’s agreement with local law enforcement, training for officers working in schools and protocols for how officers, security staff and other school workers handle students in disciplinary situations.
One board member expressed frustration with the superintendent about what he saw as a lack of transparency.
And a parent of another high school student with disabilities said she was disappointed the district wasn’t taking more action to prevent such violent encounters between students and armed officers.
Gutierrez and the district’s general counsel cited pending litigation by the boy’s family as their reason for not detailing the event Thursday.
Board member Pablo Lujan wasn’t impressed.
“My priority is that the public understands what took place and that we don’t hide behind it,” Lujan told The New Mexican in an interview after the meeting.
“I was very close to asking for the superintendent’s resignation,” Lujan said. “I just hope that she can be as transparent with this situation as she is with hiring a basketball coach.”
He was referring to turmoil that erupted three years ago when the board forced Gutierrez to resign after she fired a high school boys basketball coach who was under investigation over allegations of abusive behavior. A year later, she was rehired by a panel of new board members.
Lujan said, “My constituents want to know, ‘Did this officer have proper training? Was this a substitute officer when this happened?’ I think our counsel was protecting the superintendent instead of the board. And that’s why the public can’t get any information.”
Details of the incident, in which Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremy Barnes fired a Taser on the 15-year-old boy in the dean’s office at the high school — administering the device two additional times as the boy lay on the ground — have been widely reported, and video from Barnes’ body camera was posted online last month by the Rio Grande Sun newspaper in Española.
The deputy had accused the boy of not complying with security staff who were trying to search him for drugs, according to his report and video of the incident. After the boy called him a name, the deputy and a security guard grabbed him, and the deputy fired the weapon soon after.
On Tuesday — after Lt. Gov Howie Morales, Attorney General Hector Balderas and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico all had issued statements condemning the incident — Gutierrez and the Española school board released their first public comments on the incident, saying, “students will have bad days or special needs, but do not need to be tased, physically restrained, or incarcerated by law enforcement for daily disciplinary situations.”
Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan has defended Barnes’ actions and disagreed with the district’s description of the incident as a “daily disciplinary situation,” noting security officials at the school had suspected the boy of being involved in drug activity, and the deputy reported finding vape pens in the boy’s pocket, one of which might have contained cannabis.
The sheriff also questioned whether the tased teen was in the district’s special-education program, despite comments by the boy’s mother on video about his IEP, or Individualized Education Program, a legally binding federal document for public school students eligible for special-education services.
The sheriff’s office is still conducting an internal investigation into Barnes’ actions.
Barnes, meanwhile, remains on active duty but is not stationed at the high school, according to the sheriff’s office.
Following a presentation Thursday evening by district counsel Geno Zamora on policy options for security personnel on campus, the school board discussed altering its memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement to ensure all officers on campus have school-specific training.
Gutierrez said the current agreement asks for such training but does not make it mandatory.
“I think there needs to be special training for a school resource officer to be placed on our school campuses,” Gutierrez said. “Because of shortages with officers, we don’t always have that luxury.”
Margaret Lopez, who said her daughter is a rising junior at Española Valley High, said in an interview after the meeting that more needs to be done — and quickly.
“My daughter is refusing to go to school next year,” Lopez said. “She gets seizures and can sometimes get belligerent. Her fear is that she is going to be belligerent in a seizure and accidentally hit somebody and then get tased.
“I’m waiting to see action,” Lopez said. “I’m waiting to see answers. I’m still wondering: Do I need to start looking for another school?”