SANTA FE – Financial settlements of legal claims against public schools and some colleges on accusations ranging from sexual molestation to personal injury would be sealed off from public view for at least six months, under a bill endorsed by a panel of House lawmakers Friday.
Advocates of the bill said it would safeguard from public embarrassment the whistleblowers who denounce misbehavior at schools in small communities, while some lawmakers fear it would conceal wrongdoing by public school employees and leave parents of students none the wiser. A House committee on education voted 10-4 to advance the bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Raymundo Lara of Chamberino.
The proposed exception to state open records law comes amid revelations about recent six-figure payouts by the insurance authority to settle molestation cases against school employees in Santa Fe and Española. A similar six-month disclosure ban already covers legal settlements involving state employees.
The initiative is backed by state Association of School Superintendents and the New Mexico Public School Insurance Authority that contracts liability insurance and oversees financial settlements over accusations against public schools, charter schools, some public colleges and their employees.
“People talk, and it causes a lot of shame sometimes for some of these children and their families. They just don’t end up being treated the same,” said Ernestine Chavez, executive director of the insurance authority. “We believe giving that six month cool-off period would really help. … If we don’t protect them for at least a period of time, we might ruin the chances of more children and more school employees coming forward when they have been violated.”
Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences voted against the measure after voicing concerns that delaying the public release of legal settlements would protect public employees accused of wrongdoing.
“I see the point of protecting a minor,” she said. “I’m wondering what the point would be of protecting an employee who did wrong. … I think it’s important for families and communities to have access and know what may be a trend in their district.”
Dow asked whether children are publicly identified in settlement documents. Chavez clarified after the hearing that the names of children are redacted and appear as initials in settlement-related documents. She said that still provides little anonymity in tight-knit communities.
Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, who also works as an instructional coach for teachers, raised questions about whether the bill could enable school employees who are involved in out-of-court settlements to move unnoticed on to jobs at other districts, but ultimately appeared satisfied with the bill and voted to advance it. A separate bill this year seeks to tighten requirements for school administrators to report allegations of sexual harassment by school personnel.
The bill heard Friday bans disclosure of settlements within 180 days of cases being completely closed. It was unclear how much additional time might be added to the black-out period by court appeals and other legal maneuvers.
Releasing records prior to the deadline would be punishable by a misdemeanor fine of $1,000 and a five-year ban from employment by state government. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government opposes the bill.