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APS still mum about hair-snipping incident

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

It’s a story that has gripped local attention, sparking protests and outcry. It’s also a story that has spread nationally, appearing in The Washington Post and Teen Vogue, among others.

An Albuquerque teacher is accused of snipping the end of a Native American student’s braid in class and calling a Navajo student a “bloody Indian.”

But Albuquerque Public Schools is not providing any details or records from its investigation. In fact, it now will not confirm whether there even is a police record. APS officials will say only that there was an investigation that was turned over to the District Attorney’s Office, which determined there were not sufficient grounds to prosecute. The DA’s Office says APS did not submit a written report to it.

APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy offered an apology on behalf of the district at a contentious school board meeting Wednesday night but did not release any new details.

Now, the Public Education Department is opening its own investigation.

APS, which has not named the teacher, had said she is no longer working for APS. The district declined to say whether she was fired or resigned.

Students, Shannon Johnson – the mother of the 17-year-old McKenzie Johnson, who says she was called a “bloody Indian,” and others have said the teacher is Mary Eastin.

Records request denied

The Journal sent public records requests to the state’s largest public school district seeking police reports and any other documentation to learn what APS has officially found out about the incident involving the Cibola High School English teacher, whom the district previously has called “highly regarded.”

APS has refused all requests.

On Nov. 2, APS told families a teacher was put on paid leave for a “Halloween stunt,” saying the teacher said a “culturally insensitive remark to one student and snipped the hair of another student.”

The district assured families that the APS Police Department was investigating. When the Journal asked for a police report, APS cited exemptions on why it would not be released – exemptions the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said do not apply.

“The law enforcement record(s) you have requested are excepted from release in compliance with the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act,” APS Custodian of Records Jeannie Chavez said in an email, which cites three exemptions.

Gregory Williams, a lawyer with 23 years experience and an officer with NMFOG, said that although there are exemptions in the law that allow certain documents to be withheld, those exemptions are not applicable to police reports.

When the Journal asked APS about this, questions arose about whether a police report even exists.

Superintendent Raquel Reedy was unsure whether a police report was created. “I’m not clear if there was or if there wasn’t,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said there was an internal investigation and an internal affairs report, but she did not say whether an APS police report on the teacher was ever created.

“There was an internal investigation, the findings were shared with the district attorney, and the decision was made by the DA not to prosecute,” Armenta said.

The DA’s Office clarified Armenta’s comments later Wednesday with this statement: “This behavior is completely unacceptable. However, based on preliminary information it does not appear to meet the necessary elements for criminal prosecution. We will reach out to the relevant agency to request additional information before making a final decision.”

Williams said the lack of clarity surrounding the police report calls into question APS’ investigation.

“You wouldn’t go to the lengths of claiming exemptions for a record if the record didn’t exist to begin with, so the whole situation calls into question their investigation,” he said.

Chavez also wrote in an email that the internal investigation documents Armenta referenced are excepted from release as well.

Williams disagrees with this, too, stressing that the district should deliver the information.

“There is no exemption that covers investigative reports, and it should be produced. All the law protects is statements of opinions in that report – and that can be redacted – but the rest should be provided,” he said.

The state Public Education Department is now getting involved.

PED spokesman Chris Eide said the PED opened an investigation into the Cibola teacher on Wednesday and will ask APS for information.

A PED investigation can result in revocation of a teaching license, suspension, a warning or nothing at all.

Questions, demands

It’s been 36 days since the derogatory term and hair cutting on Halloween, but the community still has questions and demands.

Armenta has said the Halloween incident occurred while the teacher was conducting a lesson plan while wearing a New Orleans voodoo-like costume and impersonating a book character.

At Wednesday night’s school board meeting, Reedy said the district is working on cultural sensitivity training.

“I want to offer a heartfelt apology on behalf of Albuquerque Public Schools,” she said.

Reedy also said APS is working with local and state professionals to create a training plan.

At the meeting, about 30 people signed up to speak during the public comment portion, most of them saying they were outraged by the Cibola incident.

Some said Reedy’s apology was too late.

“It took more than a whole month for this apology to happen,” said Demetrius Johnson, brother of McKenzie Johnson.

Johnson said he is still upset over what happened on Halloween.

His mother, Shannon Johnson, also spoke to the board, asking for protection for McKenzie, who she says has faced backlash since she has spoken publicly.

Two Cibola parents spoke in support of Eastin, saying Eastin had a reputation of raising test scores and focusing on individual kids’ needs. Both declined to give their names to the Journal.

“What’s sad is the majority of students who won’t get her education,” one of the parents said.

But their speeches sparked shouts and cursing from the audience.

“White privilege!” Justine Teba yelled.