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Editorial: Law should make clear we all must report child abuse

Ex-teacher Gary Gregor enters the courtroom on Dec. 12, when he was convicted on 12 counts for alleged sexual abuse of fourth-grade girl students in Española. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Last legislative session, HB 122, “Duty to Report Child Abuse and Neglect,” sponsored by Albuquerque Democrats Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Monica Youngblood, died in committee and never made it to that chamber’s floor. Ditto for SB 87, “Child Abuse Definition and Investigation,” sponsored by Silver City Democrat and now-Lt. Gov. Howie Morales.

Those bills would have made it clear that “every person who has information that is not privileged as a matter of law and who knows or has a reasonable suspicion that a child is an abused or a neglected child shall report the matter immediately” to law enforcement and that this applies even to “abuse committed by a person who is not the child’s parent, guardian or custodian.” Sen. Mimi Stewart’s SB 31 met the same fate. It would have set aside $100,000 to make sure teachers got training on reporting allegations of sexual assault.

And so, New Mexico continues to play the game of pass the pervert while too many of the state’s children remain stuck in a reoccurring nightmare of abuse.

That’s unacceptable. Similar bills need to be resurrected this year, and lawmakers need to pass them.

This session, our poster boy is former teacher Gary Gregor, who left Santa Fe’s Agua Fria Elementary with a “neutral recommendation” in 2004 despite the principal, a rape crisis employee and museum docents all expressing concern about his interaction with fourth-graders.

They said the “sitting on his lap and tickling goes well beyond appropriate physical interactions between a teacher and a 4th-grade student.” Children reported he would tickle girls as they sat on his lap and they “felt his ‘boner’ and ‘his thing was sticking up.’ ” There was concern he was likely grooming children for further abuse.

And yet Santa Fe Public Schools accepted his resignation, sent him out to work in another school district and did not inform law enforcement because, well, it wasn’t their job.

Maybe not under a strict reading of state law, but how about as a member of civilized society and the human race?

Unfortunately, the reporting requirement in the New Mexico Abuse and Neglect Act applies to allegations of abuse by parents and guardians, not teachers. That’s why Angela Dawson, Santa Fe schools’ human resources official, says police weren’t called because “as an employer, we are not required to determine if something criminal happened.” Of course not. Hence the term “allegations” and the reason you call the cops in the first place.

Then-Santa Fe school superintendent Gloria Rendon says the museum docents who spotted inappropriate behavior by Gregor toward girls on a school field trip should have reported him to law enforcement. Of course they should have. But so should have Rendon. Her priority seems to have been to get Gregor out of her district, the risk to other kids be damned. She has said “I’m always going to be concerned about – about other students. But my first obligation was to the students in Santa Fe.”

There were others who fell under the heading of why didn’t you pick up a phone, as well.

But as the finger pointing and civil lawsuits continue – Española schools has already paid out $9.2 million for Gregor’s misdeeds – N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas initiated criminal proceedings and more than a decade after SFPS washed its hands of Gregor, and a decade after he continued stealing childhoods in Española, he has been convicted on 12 charges involving the sexual abuse of two female fourth-grade students during the 2007-08 school year. He faces up to 168 years in prison. More abuse charges involving more students are pending.

As Gregor’s many years of terrorizing children shows, New Mexico clearly has to legislate common decency, as well as common sense. Many of his crimes could have been prevented if someone had simply reached out to law enforcement. Legislators need to resurrect these failed 2017 bills that spell out we are all responsible for reporting all child abuse – for the future safety of our children.