March 23, 2018

Legislators seek to address school shootings, but no extraordinary session yet

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The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The Legislative Finance Committee started the process to create a task force focused on preventing school shootings.

State Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, made the motion after a morning full of testimony from state, school and law enforcement officials about ways to prevent school shootings.

The Legislative Council will decide on the makeup of the task force during its April meeting.

The vote came after Munoz said the Legislature should start the process for an extraordinary session for school security, saying that there was no time to wait to address the issue.

At the hearing Thursday, many people recalled the December shooting at Aztec High School that left two students and the shooter dead. That shooter had a swastika and SS markings on his body.

During his testimony, Kirk M. Carpenter, the superintendent of Aztec Municipal School District, recounted what happened that day in December and how students, teachers and faculty have responded since then.

In a letter to the committee, Carpenter requested more funding for armed security—but not for arming teachers. Parents, students and teachers, he said, all agree that teachers with weapons in the classroom would be “very disruptive.”

Carpenter suggested legislators allocate money for more capital improvements for security, consider allowing retired law enforcement officers to work as security officers and help districts meet the mental health needs of students.

Wayne W. Lindstrom, the director of the Behavioral Health Services Division of the New Mexico Human Services Department did not appear at the hearing, but provided a presentation to the interim Legislative Finance Committee, citing literature on the topic that called for some big changes to prevent gun violence.

These included limits on access to high-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons, the removal of language in federal legislation that bans the use of federal funds for research into gun violence, the support of universal background checks and more. The presentation also noted that teachers should not be armed.

Ruby Ann Esquibel, a principal analyst with LFC, did not bring these up in her opening statement, but did mention using a public health approach to decrease gun violence in the state.

She said the state has had success using similar approaches on HIV prevention, tobacco prevention and vehicular safety.

The hearing comes just two days before expected nationwide, large-scale protests against gun violence in schools.

Rio Rancho Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Baker, a former police officer, backed the idea of rehiring retired law enforcement.

“They’ve been doing it for well over 20 years,” Baker said. “To get them retrained and recertified would be much easier than to try to train a teacher.”

Jonathan Chamblin, the director of the Public Schools Facilities Authority, provided updates on possible public school security infrastructure updates, from guard shacks to increased fencing.

He said this isn’t a final recommendation, and they are still collecting data.

“Everytime we go to a school district and to a school, we learn something new,” Chamblin said.

Still, Munoz wasn’t sure waiting to begin the process in April without a promise of a legislative session would be soon enough. He wanted an extraordinary session beginning June 10 so changes could happen before the new school year, before another shooting happens.

“Time’s running out,” he said.

Others said an extraordinary session would allow legislators to introduce any bills they wish, and it wouldn’t be constrained to certain topics, like a special session would be.

Munoz acknowledged that, but said doing so would show the legislators’ priorities.

“If you’re worried about what else is on the agenda, then they have a different motive than children and school security,” he said.

Correction: This story originally said Ruby Ann Esquibel was a health policy coordinator with the state Human Services Department. She is actually a principal analyst with the Legislative Finance Committee.

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