This school district is ground zero for harsh discipline of Native students in New Mexico

The district is responsible for most of New Mexico’s disproportionate expulsions of Native students

Published December 22, 2022 4:00AM (EST)

Student in school yard. (FotoDuets/Getty Images)
Student in school yard. (FotoDuets/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on ProPublica.

One chilly March afternoon, dozens of Navajo children spilled out of their middle school to play in the snow before heading home. Students in jackets and parkas can be seen on grainy security camera footage chasing and pushing one another to the ground.

The next day, the principal called one of the children into her office. "She said I was expelled," the child said in an interview, looking at his feet as he sat with his grandmother on their living room couch. "We were just playing around."

His offense, according to school records, was "assault and battery" for pushing another student down.

The seventh grader, whose middle name is Matthew, said that was the culmination of months of being written up for "everything" — from being off-task in class to playing on the school elevator. (Out of concern that the boy will be stigmatized at school, his grandmother agreed to speak on the condition that she not be identified and that he be identified only by his middle name.)

In New Mexico, Native American students are expelled far more often than any other group and at least four times as often as white students.

Matthew's school district, Gallup-McKinley County Schools, is responsible for most of that disparity, according to an analysis of state records by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica. The district has a quarter of New Mexico's Native students, but it accounted for at least three-quarters of Native student expulsions in the state during the four school years ending in 2020.

Gallup-McKinley is one of the largest school districts in the state by enrollment and geography, but even so, it has just 4% of the state's students. Twice the size of Delaware, the district sits along the western edge of New Mexico and includes wide swaths of the Navajo Nation. The Chuska Mountains stretch northward, overlooking sandstone cliffs, mesas and canyons, in a landscape dotted with piñon pine, juniper and the fossilized remnants of long-gone oceans.

About three-quarters of Gallup-McKinley's roughly 12,000 students are Native American, most of them Navajo. It has the largest Native enrollment of any public school district in the United States, according to federal figures.

Gallup and other towns that ring the Navajo Nation have a history of bias and exploitation. In a recent book, University of New Mexico professor David Correia wrote that Gallup's businesses, including payday lenders, unscrupulous art dealers and liquor stores, have a history of exploiting Native people.

Wendy Greyeyes, who is Navajo and an assistant professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said that history plays out today in a more subtle way: through school practices that lead to Native students being disciplined more harshly than others. School policies "are used to justify racist behavior," she said.

In addition to analyzing statewide discipline data, New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica interviewed 80 people, including 47 parents, grandparents and current and former students, to understand discipline practices in Gallup-McKinley schools. District officials, including Superintendent Mike Hyatt and school board President Christopher Mortenson, did not respond to repeated interview requests.

The state education department requires school districts to report all disciplinary incidents. Those reports track the type of discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, and note whether police were involved. Gallup-McKinley school officials sometimes called the police or juvenile probation officers over physical altercations, tobacco or drug possession and disorderly conduct, those records show.

Over the past decade or so, the number of expulsions and incidents involving law enforcement has dropped substantially in New Mexico. While Gallup-McKinley's discipline rate has fluctuated over the past decade, it has remained far higher than the rest of the state.

That has happened under the nose of the state.

Since 2018, New Mexico has been under a state district court order to remedy its failure to provide a sufficient education to Native Americans, students learning English as a second language and other underserved youth. The child of one of the lead plaintiffs in the case that led to the order attended school at Gallup-McKinley. Though most of the court order dealt with state funding and oversight, the judge did address school discipline, noting that high discipline rates are a signal students need more help in school.

The New Mexico Public Education Department uses school districts' annual reports to track racial disparities among special education students, as required by federal law. Unlike some other states, it doesn't otherwise track racial disparities in discipline.

The department declined to address the news outlets' findings. Kelly Pearce, a department spokesperson, said the state could discuss only the "big picture" because school districts are in charge of discipline. If families have complaints about school discipline, she said, they should go to the federal Office for Civil Rights. No one has complained to that office regarding school discipline in Gallup-McKinley from the 2015-16 through the 2020-21 school years.

A spokesperson for New Mexico Attorney General-elect Raúl Torrez called the news outlets' findings "alarming" but said the office doesn't have authority to investigate civil rights abuses by school districts or other public bodies. Torrez will advocate for legislation to change that, spokesperson Taylor Bui said.

Daniel Losen, who studies racial disparities in school discipline as director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said someone needs to investigate discipline rates in Gallup-McKinley.

School districts with higher concentrations of students of color often "have higher use of police and just more draconian discipline practices," Losen said. "Why is what's happening to kids in Gallup so much worse than what's happening to kids in the rest of the state?"

Gallup-McKinley's discipline rates tower above the rest of New Mexico

Students in Gallup-McKinley County Schools were disciplined far more frequently and severely than those in the rest of the state in the 2016-17 to 2019-20 school years. The district especially stands out when it comes to expulsions and incidents in which students were referred to police or juvenile probation.

Gallup-McKinley reported at least 211 expulsions over the four school years, an annual rate of 4.6 per 1,000 students. That's at least 10 times as high as the rest of the state. Students in Gallup-McKinley schools also faced 735 disciplinary incidents involving law enforcement, which amounts to a rate nearly four times as high as the rest of the state. The disparities persisted from elementary through high school.

Native students within the district are subjected to these punishments at roughly twice the rate of their white peers. The district's Hispanic students face similarly high rates, but because Gallup-McKinley's Hispanic student population is relatively small, these numbers don't significantly drive up the state's discipline rates for Hispanics overall.

Gallup-McKinley's student behavior handbook states that the rules will be "enforced fairly in an age-appropriate manner" and that the district is committed to providing all students safe school environments "free of discrimination, violence, and bullying."

Ben Chavez, who directed discipline in the district until earlier this year, told New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica he was not given permission to speak about the issue.

Rachel A. Rodriguez, a former Gallup-McKinley County Schools discipline administrator, attributed Native students' higher disciplinary rates to problems among rural families, like poverty, trauma and substance abuse.

The belief that alcohol abuse is more frequent among Native Americans is widespread, but it's not borne out by the facts. And neighboring districts with large numbers of Native students and similarly high rates of unemployment and poverty don't dispense as much harsh discipline as Gallup-McKinley.

For example, Gallup-McKinley reported significantly higher rates of expulsions and incidents involving law enforcement than the Central Consolidated district in neighboring San Juan County. Central Consolidated has an even higher proportion of Native students than Gallup-McKinley and a similar "at-risk index," which is used by the state to identify school districts that need additional money to educate high-needs kids.

One of the main drivers of Gallup-McKinley's discipline rates is disorderly conduct — an infraction that until the current school year wasn't even defined in its or state education department policies, rulebooks, parent handbooks or regulations. The 2022-23 Gallup-McKinley student handbook defines it simply as "action(s) which substantially disrupt(s) the orderly conduct of a school environment."

"Disorderly conduct," said former Gallup-McKinley Assistant Principal Ron Triplehorn, "is going to be kind of your catchall, just kind of a generic term for general misbehavior."

Statewide, Native students were expelled for disorderly conduct at least 76 times and law enforcement was involved in 193 such incidents from 2016-17 to 2019-20. About 90% of these incidents occurred in Gallup-McKinley schools.

Across the United States, students of color tend to be disciplined at higher rates for vaguely defined, catchall minor infractions like disorderly conduct, Losen said. "That's where the largest racial disparities are usually found," he said.

Gina Laura Gullo, assistant director of education services at the Pennsylvania State Education Association, did her Ph.D. dissertation on unconscious bias in school discipline. She found that school administrators who scored higher on measures of implicit racial bias assigned harsher discipline to students of color than white pupils.

"Infractions that are more subjective in nature," she said, "such as disorderly conduct, insubordination, classroom disturbance and the like, are those that are specifically subject to more implicit bias."

How Matthew got kicked out of school

For 13-year-old Matthew, inattentiveness, playing on an elevator, not following instructions and pouring glue on a desk were all classified as disorderly conduct.

He said his discipline problems started after the principal caught him making fun of her in the hallway. Over the next two months, she suspended him four times and wrote him up four other times.

The first time, Matthew was suspended for a day because a teacher reported that he didn't follow instructions and poured glue on his desk. Matthew told New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica that he was putting glue on his hand when some got on the desk, and that he peeled it off.

Matthew's grandmother allowed the news outlets to review his school disciplinary records. The principal did not respond to interview requests.

In November, Matthew's teacher wrote that he objected to Matthew's "behavior towards learning." He "is always off-task, disrespectful, and defiant," his teacher wrote in a note to the principal.

When Matthew wore a blue shirt to school, a dress code violation, the principal wrote him up for "gang-related activity."

She wrote him up for "bullying" after she used security camera footage to conclude he and another student banged on her office window and ran off. Matthew told the news outlets he didn't do it; the only evidence in his file is two blurry images taken from the video.

The principal suspended Matthew for a day after confiscating a miniature toy butterfly knife. "Weapons possession," she wrote. He said he had bought the plastic and tin toy from a vending machine.

Two weeks later, she suspended him for a week for allegedly cutting a classroom chair with the elastic band of his face mask. That, the principal wrote, was "vandalism." Matthew told the news outlets he slipped the band into an existing cut in the back of the plastic chair, and the teacher saw him pulling it back and forth.

In December, the principal ordered a disciplinary hearing, citing his "multiple misbehaviors." Matthew and his grandmother signed a behavior contract, agreeing he would stay out of trouble.

"It would have been nice if she had asked why he was acting like this," Matthew's grandmother said. She said she would've told the principal that Matthew has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Though Matthew once took medication at school, he doesn't have an individualized education plan, or IEP, which would afford him protections for discipline related to his diagnosis.

Matthew had reason to be distracted at school: His grandmother, who is raising him, was undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer. A judge awarded her custody of Matthew when he was little, after his father died. He sees his mother only occasionally.

Then came the incident in March, when Matthew was kicked out of school for pushing the student to the ground. In a letter to his grandmother, the principal wrote that a security video showed Matthew "chasing and shoving" a "female student into the snow multiple times" and that when the girl was questioned the next morning, she reported back pain.

Matthew's grandmother said the principal refused to show her the video or allow her to hear the girl's version of events. Instead, the principal provided a single picture. It "just showed a girl in the snow with two boys standing there," the grandmother said. "I didn't recognize him."

New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reviewed the video, which had no audio. It shows groups of children talking and roughhousing. The student identified in the report as Matthew pushed another student down, possibly twice. Earlier, another student had pushed the same student down but apparently was not disciplined, according to the district's response to a public records request for other disciplinary reports from that afternoon. All three students appeared to interact afterward.

Matthew's grandmother told the principal she wanted to appeal the decision to kick Matthew out of school. "She told me, 'Good luck.'"

Normally the school district must hold a hearing before expelling or suspending a student for more than 10 days. But the behavior contract Matthew and his grandmother had signed said if he broke the rules again, he would be disciplined without a hearing.

Although Matthew said the principal told him he was expelled, her letter to the grandmother called it a long-term suspension. Under the district's rules at the time, that meant Matthew could have returned to school after 90 days. But when Matthew's grandmother later tried to enroll him in summer school, which fell outside that time, the principal refused, the grandmother said.

After Matthew was kicked out, his grandmother asked that he be allowed to take online classes or complete homework so he didn't fall hopelessly behind. Schools allowed both when they were closed during the pandemic. The principal refused, the grandmother said.

Over the following weeks, Matthew became increasingly withdrawn, his grandmother said. "He stopped talking to me very much," she said. "I worry."

Delores Greyeyes, director of the Navajo Department of Corrections and mother of Wendy Greyeyes, said some parts of Matthew's story sounded familiar. When she was a girl, she said, she and her friends poured glue on their hands.

"We let it dry and pulled it off to see our palm and fingerprints," she said. "So when you tell me this student was disciplined for disorderly conduct because glue got on his desk, I have to wonder: Was that curiosity?"

Greyeyes, a former social worker, interviewed inmates at the state prison in Winslow for her dissertation research. They told her their first encounters with police happened in school. Trouble often started small — missed homework or sleeping in class. Teachers saw them as defiant rather than asking them what was wrong, she said, leading to escalating discipline.

"One of these young men said his school administrator told him he was a 'no-good Indian' and put it in his head his destiny would be to be in jail or dead," she said.

The unintended consequences of harsh discipline

Karl Lohmann, a retired Gallup-McKinley elementary school teacher, remembers when the school district established a "zero tolerance" policy in the early 1990s. Many teachers welcomed it, he said, because they thought it would give them more support and more say in student suspensions.

Several years later, he sent a fifth grade Native American boy to the principal's office for stealing a handheld electronic spelling game. "I expected the principal to call in the parents and get it back," Lohmann said.

Instead, the boy was handcuffed and taken away in a patrol car. "That was part of my education about how policies can have unintended consequences," Lohmann said.

Research has shown that "zero tolerance" or "no excuses" policies, adopted in many school districts around that time, can do more harm than good and even serve as a vehicle for bias. After calls for reform, many school districts have shifted away from zero tolerance in favor of prevention of misbehavior and a focus on students' emotional needs.

Gallup-McKinley's current discipline policy doesn't mention zero tolerance. But neither does it embrace an approach gaining favor in the state: restorative justice practices such as talking circle mediation. The state has announced that it will conduct a pilot study of restorative justice practices to reduce expulsion and suspension rates. Twelve schools across the state will participate; none are in Gallup-McKinley.

Severe discipline practices criminalize student misbehavior, said Regis Pecos, a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and a leader in efforts to reform education in New Mexico.

Harsh forms of discipline, coupled with a lack of emotional support or restorative justice practices, create a "hostile education environment," Pecos said. Students become demoralized and come to see themselves as the problem. That fuels high dropout rates, underachievement, poverty, health disparities and high suicide rates, he said, "compounding the challenges for students, parents and communities."

Gallup-McKinley's three-year strategic plan, completed in February, says one desired outcome is a reduction in the number of disciplinary referrals that result in charges against students, but district officials did not answer questions about how that would be achieved. The plan was removed from the district's website after New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica asked about it.

About a dozen students and parents told New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica they supported the district's strict discipline measures. About twice as many said some students are singled out while others are handled lightly, and punishments can be arbitrary and counterproductive.

This spring, dozens of students, mostly Native, were suspended for a senior prank in which they threw streamers, toilet paper and glitter and sprayed shaving cream throughout the school.

Some of the students' parents said the district pressured them to waive their right to a hearing in exchange for allowing the students to graduate. Several parents instead sued after their children had been suspended for more than 10 days without a hearing — a violation of the school district's policies.

A judge ordered Gallup-McKinley to allow the students to return to class. The school district held hearings and suspended the students a week before graduation, although they did graduate.

Students, parents and alumni protested what they saw as a strict response to an annual prank, which the district called "criminal activity." District officials called police over the incident, although they told police they would handle student discipline and no one was charged.

Rodriguez, the former Gallup-McKinley discipline administrator, said school officials sometimes can't avoid calling the police. She described one such incident involving a fifth grade boy.

"He was so angry," she said. "We called the police and three officers had to put him down and put him in handcuffs. When I came home that night, I cried. I said, 'I never want to see a fifth grade student put in handcuffs again.' It was traumatizing to me. But we had to."

Other times, she said, police were called to help retrieve children, including elementary students, who left campus. "They run — take off running from the school and we chase them, but they're faster than us," she said. "So we have to call the police to find them."

McKinley County Sheriff-elect James Maiorano III said his office has been contacted a few times over the years for missing students. The Gallup Police Department didn't respond to requests for comment.

Maiorano, who has been with the sheriff's office for 18 years, said the agency is increasing its presence in Gallup-McKinley schools to deal with fights and drug possession.

Discipline involving police can have profound consequences. Rhonda Goodenough, who once ran the state probation and parole office in Gallup, said even a sealed juvenile record of a minor offense sometimes stops a young person from joining the military. Recruiters would call, asking her to unseal or explain a minor's criminal record, but she wasn't allowed to say anything.

"There was nothing I could do," Goodenough said. "They couldn't get it off their record."

By the end of the school year, Matthew had missed close to 100 days of class. In August, he learned he would be forced to repeat seventh grade.

"He's really quiet. He used to talk with me, but now it's just 'yes,' 'no,' 'I dunno,'" his grandmother said in September. "Before, he used to talk to me about class and what they did, but since he started getting in trouble there, he's just not interested in school anymore."

Matthew said his favorite subjects are math and science. In elementary school, he participated in an after-school STEM club. Before his string of suspensions, his grandmother said, he had talked about going to college to become an engineer.

"If we can just get him through high school and into college," she sighed, "I can die content."

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