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City Sues Over BioPark Damage

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
    The city made good on its intention to try to collect money for damage to Albuquerque Aquarium fish tanks from four John Adams Middle School students and their parents.
    A lawsuit, filed in state District Court on Thursday, seeks more than $30,000 in damages. Under state law, the city can seek up to $4,000 from parents and guardians and attempt to garnishee future paychecks of the children to recover damages.
    The lawsuit is aimed at the families of students, ages 12 to 14, who were arrested April 5 after they were accused of sneaking away from adult chaperons at the Albuquerque Biological Park and scratching viewing windows on five fish tanks. It was announced at the aquarium Thursday.
    At John Adams shortly after the announcement, staff members, students and Albuquerque Public Schools officials revealed their own plans to have bake sales and carwashes and seek donations on behalf of the aquarium, as well as intentions to volunteer there.
    "I felt disappointed in the image that our school has been given," seventh-grader Giovanna Bourguet said, "because we are a good school with caring students and caring teachers."
    The students who were arrested have not returned to school since the incident and are facing long-term suspensions, APS spokesman Rigo Chavez said.
    Thursday, city officials said repairing and replacing windows in the jellyfish exhibit will cost $30,000. Buffing out damage on shark tank windows will cost $4,000 to $5,000.
    A commercial real estate company, Maestas & Ward, offered to replace the jellyfish tank and was thanked by Mayor Martin Chávez on Thursday for its donation.
    The lawsuit names Charles Aragon and his mother, Tina Aragon; Desiree Gallegos and her aunt, Elene Marquez; Randy Kowalchuck and his grandmother, Helen Aragon; and Veronica Rodriguez and her stepfather, Joe Ramos.
    Helen Aragon, a widow on Social Security raising Kowalchuck and his two sisters while their mother is in prison, said she is "low-income" when asked if she could pay for the damage.
    "I am very much, and I was, very upset over what happened," Aragon said in a telephone interview Thursday.
    Messages left with the three other families Thursday were not returned.
    Aragon was called with other Adams guardians and parents to the aquarium at 12:30 p.m. April 5, and her grandson was kept in the security office until 5 p.m. After that, she said, he wouldn't stop crying and she couldn't get him to talk to her.
    "I asked him, 'Why did you do it?' '' she said. "You know what he told me? 'Everybody else was doing it.' ''
    Since then, she said, her grandson has been very depressed and quiet "as if he's so worried about something."
    She said her grandson, who will turn 13 next month, spends most of his time at home with her watching movies or playing games. Recently, he has begun playing basketball and football with other children.
    "That little boy has had a rough life and he keeps more to himself," she said.
    Initially, the entire West Side school was banned from the BioPark for two years because of the vandalism, which occurred at the same time two other John Adams students were arrested after being accused of shoplifting at the aquarium gift shop.
    The mayor told Principal Stan Agustin on Monday the field trip ban would apply only to the rest of the school year.
    In an earlier news conference at the school, Agustin said the incident was taken very seriously and the school is reviewing its field trip policies.
    "We want to make sure this never happens again," he said.
    When admonished by a television reporter over the school's delay in issuing an apology almost two weeks after the incident, Rigo Chavez said the school had been in contact with the facility.
    But both BioPark and aquarium officials later said that was not the case and they did not receive any apologies until they got a letter from students and a teacher Monday, followed by a letter from the principals later in the week.
    In a news release Thursday, Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt said she was "ashamed of our students' behavior and their disrespect of the BioPark."
    "We certainly expect and encourage a higher standard of behavior than they exhibited during this incident."
    The 240 students walked more than two miles to the aquarium in what has become an annual seventh-grade field trip to study water. The group is divided in half, spending part of the day at the bosque and part at the aquarium.
    Brian Hendrix, head of the Seventh Grade Academy, said the incident occurred during the lunch break at midday, when both halves of the group converged at the entrance to the aquarium and the student vandals simply "snuck away."
    "We did everything we could according to the guidelines given by the BioPark," Hendrix said, adding that chaperons did not follow students to the bathrooms or while they were in line for lunch.
    BioPark director Ray Darnell later confirmed the school would not have been admitted without the correct number of adult chaperons— one adult for every five students— or would have been asked to pay the $7-per-person public admission instead of the $1.25 per-student rate given to school groups.
    It is up to chaperons to maintain control over the students once they are there.