Campus should ban Rio Arriba sheriff’s staff

Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan has publicly defended a deputy who tased a student at Española Valley High School last month. New Mexican file photo

As public meetings go, the most recent one held by the Española school board was notable only for its secrecy.

The topic was campus safety. This is a red-hot issue because Jeremy Barnes, a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputy, recently used his stun gun on a 15-year-old special-education student at Española Valley High School.

What date did this incident occur? asked Pablo Lujan, a school board member.

Lujan’s question was as harmless as a summer breeze. But he couldn’t get an answer from his own administration.

It seems the date Barnes’ unloaded his stun gun into a teenager’s chest is top secret, at least to Española administrators.

School Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez sat uncomfortably. She said nothing.

This left it to the school district’s attorney, Geno Zamora, to respond. Zamora ruled Lujan’s question out of bounds, supposedly for legal reasons.

“There’s not the possibility of pending litigation. There is litigation,” Zamora said, referring to the teen’s family filing a lawsuit over Barnes’ use of force on campus.

But Lujan had only asked for the date of the tasing. Nothing more. Many people already knew Barnes’ confrontation with the boy occurred May 10. It was in all the papers.

Zamora wouldn’t budge. One question can lead to another and another, the attorney said in his best bureaucratic voice.

Lujan, dressed in a blue New York Yankees T-shirt, then took a few swings of his own.

He asked what the school administration was hiding. He said Gutierrez hadn’t notified school board members of the tasing. Basic questions had been ducked instead of answered.

“I have seen zero accountability,” Lujan said. “We have zero answers from no one.”

Gutierrez, Zamora and board members later gathered in a closed session to discuss the lawsuit.

Too bad the school board and administrators didn’t talk publicly about a related policy matter.

They should have committed to dropping the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office as a supplier of school resource officers.

This would not be a drastic step. It would be a sensible change — one that would reassure a community that its high school will not be the domain of bad cops.

Barnes’ body camera video of the tasing makes it clear he doesn’t belong on campus. A peace officer would not fire a stun gun unless he or someone else is in imminent danger. Barnes couldn’t wait to use his weapon on a mouthy kid.

Just as troubling was Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan’s public defense of Barnes.

The deputy went out of his way to escalate a minor disciplinary matter to violence. Sheriff Lujan was satisfied with Barnes’ sadistic approach to campus policing.

Voters in Rio Arriba County reelected Sheriff Lujan last year. They have to live with him. Kids in Española schools will live better without him.

The school district’s leaders can find a better, safer alternative than deputies from Sheriff Lujan’s office.

Pablo Lujan told me the school board should explore hiring retired police as school resource officers.

Unlike Sheriff Lujan, school board member Lujan has a good sense of what steps are necessary to keep the peace on campus.

It’s also clear that Pablo Lujan has no confidence in Gutierrez.

He and a majority of board members forced Gutierrez to resign as superintendent in 2016. The next year, a newly configured board voted 4-1 to bring back Gutierrez as superintendent. Lujan cast the dissenting vote.

In an interview, Pablo Lujan discussed his fractured relationship with the superintendent.

“I have no communication with her,” he said. “Every time I sit down with her, she does not tell me the truth.”

They probably can’t bury their differences. If the last absurd board meeting was any indication, they probably won’t try.

What they can do is look out for the safety of students. It’s a big job with a simple first step.

Never again should Sheriff Lujan’s staff have the responsibility of working as school resource officers.

They had their shot. Barnes misfired, and an entire town is still feeling the aftershocks.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.