Jeremiah Valencia missed at least seven months of school before he died.
After spending his sixth-grade year at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School in Santa Fe, where teachers and students remember him as a friendly kid, he spent the start of the 2016-17 year at West Las Vegas Middle School. Officials say his mother withdrew him from the Las Vegas district in February 2017 and told them she was taking him back to Santa Fe.
But Jeremiah never returned to the local district.
At the time of Jeremiah’s death, the family was living in a house on the side of N.M. 503 in Nambé, in the Pojoaque school district, where officials say Jeremiah had never been enrolled.
No one told authorities that Jeremiah wasn’t enrolled in any school in the state — from officials at the two districts where he most recently attended classes to family members to a neighbor who said he often wondered why the boy didn’t seem to leave his home in Nambé to go to school.
Because the state’s child-welfare agency didn’t know 13-year-old Jeremiah was missing from school, no one from the department checked on him to make sure he was receiving an education and — more important — that he was OK.
Police believe Jeremiah died in November following a brutal beating at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend while his mother was jailed on a warrant for failing to appear in court. Thomas Wayne Ferguson, 42, was indicted by a grand jury late last week on first-degree murder and 17 other felony counts related to Jeremiah’s death. The boy’s mother and Ferguson’s son also are charged in the case.
The boy’s remains were buried secretly on a roadside, authorities say, and the death went unreported for two months. No one reported the boy missing, officials say.
The boy’s disappearance from New Mexico’s public education system highlights a gaping hole in the oversight system for school-age children and teens who aren’t enrolled in school — and therefore a gap in the safety net for children who might be neglected or abused in their homes. While a state law requires parents to enroll their kids, typically from ages 5 to 18, in an established public or private school, or a home school, the law does not specify who in the state ultimately is responsible for following up when a student transferring between districts, or from a public district to a private or state-chartered school, is a no-show.
The state’s compulsory school attendance law allows students over the age of 16 to drop out with a parent’s permission and a school leader’s approval. It also lays out guidelines on how a public district or private school should address an enrolled student’s truancy, or chronic absence.
Public districts and charter schools must report student attendance — including absences and withdrawals — to the New Mexico Public Education Department. The agency uses the information to calculate dropout rates and other statistics, a spokeswoman said.
The state agency doesn’t follow up when a student vanishes from the education system, however.
“The state is not required to intervene with any individual student,” spokeswoman Lida Alikhani said in an email. “That responsibility lies on the school or district.”
Falling through the cracks
According to court documents, life for Jeremiah was grim inside his Nambé home. Jeremiah’s 13-year-old sister and Ferguson’s 19-year-old son have described horrific abuse of the boy by Ferguson, affidavits say. The teens have told Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies that Ferguson would choke the boy and beat him so severely he could barely walk. Ferguson sometimes kept the boy in a dog kennel, the teens told deputies.
Along with Ferguson, his son, Jordan Nuñez, and the boy’s mother, Tracy Ann Peña, 35, also were arrested in connection with the boy’s death. The two have told deputies that Ferguson forced them to help remove the boy’s remains from the home after Peña returned from jail to find her son dead. They kept silent about the death, the two said, because they feared Ferguson.
Peña and Nuñez are charged with child abuse resulting in death, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to tamper with evidence. A grand jury is expected to consider their cases March 6, according to motions filed last week in the Santa Fe County Magistrate Court.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office says Jeremiah’s death came to light in January when Peña, arrested again on a probation violation, told another inmate in the county jail about her son’s death and named Ferguson as the person who killed the boy. The inmate told sheriff’s investigators, and authorities unearthed the boy’s remains shortly after.
When the death was made public, District Attorney Marco Serna said it appeared Jeremiah had not been attending school. People wondered: Where are the cracks in the safety system for New Mexico’s children? Who let Jeremiah slip through?
The boy’s middle school years were anything but stable.
According to Jeff Gephart, a spokesman for Santa Fe Public Schools, Jeremiah attended schools in the district from 2009-16, most recently as a student at Carlos Gilbert Elementary, in 2015-16.
In a letter published in The New Mexican, teachers there described him as polite, fun-loving and hardworking. He stood up for his friends, they said, and wore lots of hair gel and sparkling-clean tennis shoes that matched his polo shirts.
The following year, Jeremiah moved to West Las Vegas Middle School. But he never finished the year. According to Associate Superintendent Darice Balizan, his mother took him out of the school in February 2017.
Peña told the school she was taking Jeremiah back to Santa Fe, Superintendent Christopher Gutierrez said.
When a student withdraws, Gutierrez told The New Mexican, the district typically waits two weeks to see if the child’s new school sends a request for transcripts. Then it calls the school to follow up.
In Jeremiah’s case, Gutierrez said, West Las Vegas officials were certain the boy had transferred to Capshaw Middle School, where he was supposed to enroll, because a code in a state system showed he was a student there.
The problem is, he was never enrolled.
Gephart said records at the Santa Fe district show a preliminary registration form for Jeremiah was filled out at Capshaw, but he never became a student.
Gutierrez told The New Mexican he thinks his staff members did their due diligence in trying to check where Jeremiah went after withdrawing from West Las Vegas. Even so, he said, the situation has prompted the district to tighten its requirements.
“Some of things I see is that we need to communicate a little more,” Gutierrez said. “Different people have different roles to play when it comes to transferring [records] or accepting transfer slips. We need to make sure that everybody is crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s.”
Holes in the safety net
New Mexico’s compulsory school attendance law is explicit about how districts must deal with students who don’t show up at school on a day-to-day basis. It specifies attendance requirements and interventions by teachers and school officials, in cooperation with parents. If parents and students don’t comply, the law says, school officials can report students to the probation services branch of the court system or report parents to police. It defines the penalties for parents who are responsible for their children’s absences, a misdemeanor offense.
The process of tracking down students who go missing from the education system during a school transfer, like Jeremiah did, is not spelled out as clearly.
Alikhani, the education department spokeswoman, said the onus of making sure a kid goes to school falls only on districts and parents.
Gephart, the Santa Fe district spokesman, said that if a kid doesn’t show up at a school at the beginning of the year, the district’s policy is to try to contact the student’s parents five times — through calls, letters, home visits or any other means. And if officials can’t find the student, he said, they send the child’s information along to the Pubic Education Department as a “no show.”
Alikhani did not respond to questions about whether the department ever intervenes, or should, when a student is reported by a district as a no-show — for instance, by reporting concerns about educational neglect to the state’s child-welfare agency, which would then investigate the child’s well-being.
At any point, an educator, teacher or school administrator could have reported Jeremiah’s absence from the education system to the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
That agency could have opened an investigation and, during the process, perhaps provided the kind of intervention that could have spared Jeremiah’s life.
“We could get reports from neighbors, we could get reports from family, we could get reports from the schools — just like child abuse reporting, any concern should come from anybody and everybody,” agency spokesman Henry Varela said.
Jodi Heilbrunn, co-director of the nonprofit National Center for School Engagement, which focuses on boosting school attendance and student success, said that in states across the nation, district transfers are a likely place for students to fall through the cracks.
Sometimes, students leave the state, and their new school merely forgets to send a request for student records.
Other times, she said, transfers can be a means of escape. If a student is struggling in school, or has behavioral issues, they leave the problem behind by leaving the district. Cases in which parents don’t have stable employment, or are trying to evade debt collectors, also could prompt a family to leave.
Jeremiah’s situation, she said, “is the absolute worst-case scenario” of a transfer student gone missing.
“There is never a good reason to not enroll your children,” Heilbrunn said. “If a child is not enrolled in school, something is going really wrong.”
Veronica García, the superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said she’d like to see better coordination with the Children, Youth and Families Department when it comes to kids who aren’t in school — whether that means a hotline for members of the public to call with concerns about educational neglect or a requirement for school districts or the Public Education Department to report kids who are not enrolled.
Garcia also suggested convening a statewide task force of educators, law enforcement officials, behavioral health professionals and other groups to work on potential solutions.
“How can all the agencies, in a coordinated effort, create a comprehensive safety net for these kids?” Garcia said. “Perhaps from that collective point of view, some legislation could be proposed for the next session” of the Legislature.
Every state likely has a different way of dealing with school attendance enforcement, Heilbrunn said. Her suggestion: “Whatever is going to work — do it.”
“Attendance can never be the responsibility of just one entity or only one person,” she said. “It takes a collaborative effort. The more collaboratively schools and districts and the state department work together, the better attendance is going to be.”
Contact Sami Edge at 505-660-3591 or firstname.lastname@example.org.