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APS board pushes back against BCSO welfare checks

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education pushed back on the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office’s move to conduct welfare checks on families to make sure students are attending online classes.

Board of Education member Candelaria Patterson – along with other board members – raised concerns over “Operation Educational Encouragement” at a recent meeting.

“Take your knee off their necks, please. They don’t need this,” Patterson said, referring to a call that was used in protest after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.

The District 5 board member told the Journal it doesn’t help families to have law enforcement showing up at their houses.

“It’s very threatening and I just think it sets a different dynamic if you have a police officer coming to your door,” she said.

BCSO spokeswoman Jayme Fuller said the aim is to educate rather than penalize, reiterating Sheriff Manuel Gonzales’ comment that the intent isn’t to “hammer the parents.”

“We just want to make sure that these kids are OK,” Fuller told the Journal. “Ultimately, their safety and well-being is our No. 1 priority.”

Patterson also said the district was “blindsided” by BCSO’s plans. The board and Interim Superintendent Scott Elder weren’t told about the operation before the public announcement, according to board members and a district spokeswoman.

Fuller said the Sheriff’s Office had been in talks with APS employees about student absences for weeks.

“We absolutely worked with APS through the beginning of all of this,” Fuller said.

She said the district was not directly involved in Operation Educational Encouragement because it’s a law enforcement effort.

At a news conference, Gonzales said counselors had been calling substations to flag absent students, which in part started the operation.

Monica Armenta, an APS spokeswoman, said all district staff have to comply with federal laws on student privacy. For instance, staff can’t release personally identifiable information from educational records without parental consent or a court order, Armenta said.

“Attendance and other (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act)-protected information cannot be shared with law enforcement in order for them to conduct wellness or attendance home visits,” she said.

But Armenta said if law enforcement is seeking student information for an abuse or neglect investigation, staff is directed to cooperate after verifying the investigation with the state Children, Youth and Families Department. BCSO Sgt. Amy Dudewicz said during the initial news conference that the department had received a list for the welfare checks from the CYFD system.

Patterson said the district has personnel and community partners who could contact families, instead of using law enforcement. And District 6 board member Elizabeth Armijo wrote in an emailed statement that APS has a process to address chronic attendance problems and works with restorative justice program staff for home visits.

“The staff helps to evaluate the needs of the family and provide them with resources to help their students attend online classes,” she wrote. “I know families are doing the best they can during this time. Our goal is to support a culture of learning … not intimidation.”