February 1, 2020

House panel advances bill on training for school-based officers

Law enforcement officers stationed on New Mexico’s public school campuses could become required to receive specialized training in how to act in an educational environment.

Lawmakers on the state House Judiciary Committee on Friday unanimously advanced House Bill 184, sponsored by Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired police officer. The bill provides funding to train so-called school resource officers in deescalation techniques, informal counseling techniques and how respond to students with mental health disorders.

“We’ve had a couple incidents in New Mexico that were really visible in the media that showed the best way not to engage students when they’re in crisis,” Ruiloba said.

“It’s a challenge because not only does it cause trauma for the student,” he added, but it’s also “a huge liability” for the school district and the police department.

In May, lapel camera video showing a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputy tasing a 15-year-old special-education student at Española Valley High School raised concern and drew widespread condemnation.

The Attorney General’s Office eventually charged former deputy Jeremy Barnes with child abuse, false imprisonment, aggravated battery and violation of ethical principals of public service. He faces six and a half years in prison if he is convicted of all the counts.

The incident also prompted civil lawsuits against Rio Arriba County and its sheriff’s office.

The video showed Barnes enter a room where school security staff were questioning the boy about a possible drug transaction.

Barnes and the boy exchanged words.

Then the deputy said, “I’m going to [expletive] tase you,” just before firing the device into the boy’s chest at close range. The shock sent the boy face down to the floor. A security guard then placed his knee on the back of the boy’s neck as Barnes administered two additional shocks to the boy as he lay screaming on the floor.

“The last couple years, there’s a lot of conversations about social-emotional learning and trauma,” Ruiloba told members of the House Judiciary Committee. “This kind of training would encompass that.

“Officers now understand the needs in the school community and how to respond in a way that’s more proactive for students,” he said.

According to a legislative analysis, there are now nearly 500 school-based law enforcement officers in New Mexico.

The bill would provide $1,000 for training for each full-time, certified police officer or sheriff’s deputy working as a resource officer, responsible for school safety, crime prevention and response to crimes. The money would come from the state’s Law Enforcement Protection Fund.

Starting in the 2021-22 school year, school resource officers would be required to complete the training within 12 months of being assigned to a campus.

Ruiloba said that while the Albuquerque and Los Lunas school districts have their own police, most districts rely on county sheriff’s offices or city police departments to supply officers. 

“In a high school, you may have an SRO from the school district and SRO from the police department,” Ruiloba said. “The idea is consistent training so they both understand the initiative.”