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Student tracking bill inspired by Jeremiah passes

SANTA FE — A bill to create a system to track students moving between public school districts, spurred by a boy’s tragic death after he fell off the radar of the education system and wasn’t enrolled in classes, was passed by the state Senate just as the clock ran out on the 2019 legislative session.

But a bill to close a loophole in the state’s child abuse reporting law died in a House committee.

House Bill 447 passed the Senate 23-17 around noon Saturday and was the final action taken by the Senate before adjourning. The bill, which now heads to the governor’s desk, requires the state Children, Youth and Families Department and Public Education Department to create a tracking system for students who move among districts and CYFD services.

The bill also requires each student to get a unique identification number that won’t be used again for any other student.

The legislation was inspired by the case of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia, who was killed in Nambé, north of Santa Fe, in November 2017. Jeremiah and his younger sister were pulled from West Las Vegas Schools in February of 2017. Their mother, 36-year-old Tracy Ann Pena, started paperwork to transfer the children to a Santa Fe school, but the children never attended classes there.

Jeremiah was allegedly killed by house member Jordan Nunez, 20, the son of Pena’s live-in boyfriend Thomas Ferguson, who is also said to have abused the boy. Jeremiah’s body was found buried off the side of the road near Nambé in late January 2018.

Jeremiah Valencia

Pena has pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse resulting in death. Nunez still faces charges and Ferguson committed suicide in jail.

No state education agency was making sure Jeremiah and his sister were in school, leading Santa Fe Reps. Linda Trujillo and Andrea Romero, both Democrats, to introduce the tracking bill.

“I am thrilled that it passed,” Trujillo said. “This is a piece of the puzzle that has the potential for saving children.”

If the governor signs the bill into law, CYFD and PED must work together to create a task force to develop a tracking system. The task force has until December to report to the Legislative Education Study Committee. “I’m hoping it’s not years before any of this happens,” Trujillo said.

House Bill 488, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, would have required the reporting by “every person” of alleged child abuse committed by anyone. Current state law only requires child abuse to be reported if it’s allegedly being committed by a parent or guardian. The bill got past the House Health and Human Services Committee, but stalled in the House Judiciary Committee.

The legislation was inspired by the case of ex-teacher Gary Gregor, who was able to move between school districts in Utah and New Mexico despite repeat accusations that he was molesting his female elementary school students.

Gregor was recently convicted for sexual crimes committed against two students at Fairview Elementary School in Española during the 2007-08 school year and faces 168 years in prison. But school personnel in Española and Santa Fe, where he’d previously faced accusations of misbehavior with girls, never called police or CYFD despite complaints or concerns expressed by students and others.

According to state Attorney General Hector Balderas, who’s lobbying for Martinez’s bill, New Mexico is the only state in the nation with this kind of loophole.

“I am disappointed that the House Judiciary Committee killed this bill, leaving New Mexico as the only state in the nation that does not offer this important protection for children who are sexually abused,” Balderas said in a statement Monday.

At a March 1 hearing, the Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, voiced concerns about whether the proposed changes should be in the criminal code instead of the state’s children’s code and whether they were constitutional. A representative of the state defense attorneys association said the amendments’ language was vague and could require the reporting of someone talking on a cellphone while driving with a child as a passenger.