January 29, 2023

Adult sexual misconduct ‘prevalent’ in New Mexico’s public schools

Kendra Chamberlain

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Two years after being recognized as the girls track coach of the year at Los Lunas High School, Johnathon Bindues was in handcuffs, accused of exchanging thousands of sexually explicit text messages with a freshman on the team.

In Grants, a former female high school athlete reported she had been sexually assaulted twice by an assistant coach for the girls soccer team. The accused, Adrian Molina, was a New Mexico State Police officer at the time.

In Pecos, three basketball coaches have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past five years alone. The most recent case involves Joshua Rico, a former high school assistant boys basketball coach authorities say used the instant messaging app Snapchat to coerce girls into engaging in sexual acts and sending him sexually explicit photos and videos.

The cases are among an exhaustive list of adult sexual misconduct in New Mexico’s public schools in recent years — with a noticeable increase of incidents involving coaches.

The transgressions have come at a steep price — not just for the underage victims and their families, but taxpayers as well.

The New Mexico Public Schools Authority has paid $33.6 million from 2012 to 2021 to settle 141 claims of sexual abuse and molestation, according to a report by the Legislative Finance Committee.

“Unfortunately, adult sexual misconduct in schools is a problem that is prevalent in school districts statewide,” LFC program evaluator Clayton Lobaugh recently told legislators.

“That’s not acceptable — ever,” Rep. Patty Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and former committee chairwoman, said in response to the findings of the report.

‘Causing a lot of damage’

The extent of the problem is believed to be much worse than reflected in the number of settlements.

“These claims illustrate the scope of the problem, though they are likely an underestimation, given research indicates the majority of sexual assaults are not reported,” according to the LFC report, which referenced a finding by the federal Government Accountability Office estimating nearly 1 in 10 students are subjected to sexual abuse by school personnel before they graduate.

Marty Esquivel, general counsel for the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority, said the biggest trend has been the “proliferation of claims” involving independent contractor coaches.

“That’s not to say that we don’t still have some claims against teachers — we do — but the independent contractor [coach] issue really poses a lot of problems for school districts and for the [insurance] authority because they’re technically not school employees,” he said. “They’re contractors, but they play such a huge role with kids.”

Dusty Young, associate director of the New Mexico Activities Association, wrote in an email personnel decisions are at the discretion of a school or school district. But he added the association, which governs athletics and activities in high schools and middle schools, joins with the insurance authority in requiring coaches to go through online training modules “that cover a variety of topics, including inappropriate behavior.”

Esquivel said he’s taken the course to see what it involves and believes it doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s a national course, and this is not to knock the NMAA, but I think there needs to be a specific course with these coaches that says, ‘These types of things are unacceptable,’ ” he said. “Right now, I think the training is too broad.”

Esquivel also said social media policies need to be more stringent and schools and athletic directors must keep closer tabs on every adult interacting with student athletes.

“You need to have eyeballs not just on the head coach of your basketball program,” he said. “You need to be paying attention to what’s going on with the C team basketball coach. You need to know who the JV softball coach is, you know? It’s not just enough to hire them based on the fact that somebody knows them. You really have to make sure you know what’s going on in your school, and I’m not convinced that the athletic directors and school principals have enough time in the day to do that, but I think that’s what’s necessary.”

In the case in Grants involving Molina, the former state policeman, the LFC report states three school employees knew of an “improper relationship” he was having with not one but two students. The employees “failed to report the incident, and permitted the assistant coach continued access to students,” the report states.

Molina, 48, who was indicted on two charges of criminal sexual penetration and selling or giving alcoholic beverages to a minor, is scheduled for a plea hearing next month, according to court documents.

State police learned the Grants Police Department had opened a criminal investigation into Molina in August 2019. Police Chief Tim Johnson immediately launched an internal affairs investigation, and Molina was placed on administrative leave.

Three months later, Johnson fired Molina.

“I am committed to holding my officers accountable when they abuse their position of trust,” Johnson said in a statement to The New Mexican.

Esquivel said a vast majority of those working in public education, whether teachers or coaches, are what he called “top of the line people. But there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 to 2 percent that are really causing a lot of damage for children and then, you know, large financial settlements,” he said.

Background checks

Gary Gregor, a former Española and Santa Fe elementary school teacher convicted of raping and molesting several young female students, is responsible for the largest payout in aggregate. Española Public Schools has paid about $21 million in settlements, and Santa Fe Public Schools has paid more than $7.2 million.

“Instead of taking a matter like that to trial, we thought it made more sense to settle,” Esquivel said.

Gregor was first accused of sexual misconduct in Utah in 1994. Allegations of inappropriate contact followed when he taught in Montana.

When he applied to teach in New Mexico in 1998, first as a substitute teacher, Gregor reportedly told state Public Education Department officials he was fired for insubordination.

In 2004, while working as a fourth grade teacher at Agua Fría Elementary School, which has since been closed, docents at the Museum of International Folk Art reported to his superiors witnessing inappropriate touching between Gregor and his students during a class field trip. The school district served Gregor with a notice of discharge but didn’t contact police. Gregor resigned and was hired by the Española Public Schools in 2005 with a “neutral” recommendation from Santa Fe administrators.

The LFC report states the state Public Education Department does not routinely check two federal databases — the U.S. Department of Justice’s national sex offender public registry and the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification clearinghouse — when conducting background checks on prospective employees. The department also does not require subsequent background checks of educators unless their license expires prior to renewal, according to the report.

Kelly Pearce, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Department, wrote in an email the agency routinely checks other federal databases when conducting background checks.

“This includes checking the state Department of Public Safety and the FBI backgrounds, as well as checking National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification,” she wrote. “PED does not check the National Sex Offender Registry, because any sex-related conviction would be listed on the Public Safety and FBI background checks.”

Sounding the alarm

Two years ago, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law designed to protect students from sexual and ethical misconduct by teachers and other school employees with more background checks and new disclosure requirements for applicants.

Under House Bill 128, prospective employees are required to provide a list of former employers and disclose whether they have ever been under investigation or found to have committed an offense related to child or sexual abuse.

One of the sponsors, Rep. Debra Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, said after the legislation was enacted that it would lead to safer schools.

“The reality that perpetrators have moved from victim to victim and school to school is unacceptable,” Sariñana said in a statement at the time. ”House Bill 128 institutes the top-to-bottom accountability we need so this type of utterly atrocious and criminal behavior will not ever be swept under the rug.”

Esquivel said the theme of the legislation was to increase training and awareness.

“With teachers, I think there might be a reluctancy to report situations that don’t appear above board,” he said. “It’s hard to pinpoint or have evidence to report, so there’s a reluctance to report when it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

But teachers and students need to be taught to sound the alarm, he said.

“I think what we’re trying to accomplish is even if you have a hint that something doesn’t look right, you really need to report it,” he said. “Number two, the school has to have a mechanism to properly investigate it.”

Improved hiring processes by schools, as well as better training and supervision, are “imperative” to addressing the problem of adult sexual misconduct, Esquivel said.

Esquivel also said the insurance authority is considering creating “a pool of qualified investigators” to look into allegations, especially for small to midsize school districts.

“It might not be appropriate just to kind of assign the assistant principal to look into it,” he said. “In cases of self-preservation, an accused teacher can get to the student and say, ‘Hey, you don’t say anything, and I won’t say anything, and this won’t go any further.’ In those cases, when there’s a cover-up, you need need somebody to investigate who could overcome the initial denials that are based on self-preservation.”

At Española Valley High School, for example, the school was aware of rumors special education teacher Makana Masacayan was having “inappropriate contact” with students. School officials conducted an investigation and determined the claims were false without contacting police.

State Police launched an investigation after a 16-year-old boy told his juvenile probation officer he had proof on his cellphone he had engaged in a sexual relationship with Masacayan, who was working on a visa from the Philippines and has been charged with a fourth-degree felony count of criminal sexual penetration of a minor.

Mitigation efforts

Patrick Sandoval, the insurance authority’s executive director, wrote in an email the agency advocated for passage of House Bill 128.

In addition to more extensive background checks, Sandoval wrote the law “requires training on boundaries and grooming for all employees, volunteers, and contractors and a new reporting system” that includes the involvement of a school superintendent, who then notifies the Public Education Department and law enforcement.

Poms and Associates, which works for the insurance authority under contract, is conducting audits for compliance with the legislation, he wrote.

Sandoval wrote the insurance authority has undertaken multiple mitigation efforts to prevent or reduce the number of incidents involving adult sexual misconduct in schools.

Poms and Associates, for example, offers training on identifying a predator. The training, according to Sandoval, is aimed at identifying behaviors of individuals who prey on children at schools.

The contractor and the insurance authority also have conducted trainings for the New Mexico School Board Association that include reporting requirements and examples of social media policies districts can adopt.

“We have seen that social media at times is an entry for inappropriate conduct between staff and students and these policy examples can be used to restrict access,” Sandoval wrote.

Athletic directors and coaches also received training on inappropriate relationships between staff and students, as well as between students and students, such as hazing.

In July 2021, the insurance authority entered into a contract with Vector Solutions to provide training that consists of grade-appropriate, short online courses concerning child sexual abuse prevention, professional boundaries and grooming in schools for all school personnel, contractors and volunteers. The training in provided at no cost.

The insurance authority’s board of directors also approved funding for an anonymous reporting system for students to report inappropriate behavior. The reporting system is in the procurement phase.

Public Education Department spokeswoman Pearce wrote the primary tool used to combat sexual misconduct in schools is a federal law that requires the schools themselves to investigate and protect children from sexual discrimination and harassment by school employees.

“PED takes all instances of misconduct seriously and has processes to first reduce the likelihood of misconduct — including background checks for all school personnel and training to recognize the signs of possible misconduct, to empower staff to report that conduct,” she wrote. “When a student or school staff become aware of an incident or has a concern, PED ensures that there is a safe means to report the concern and the PED investigates each incident to conclusion or prosecution.”

Pearce wrote PED policy is bolstered by local school district and charter policies to prevent and report misconduct.

Actions the department is taking to combat sexual misconduct include conducting background checks and character and fitness reviews of any applicant for PED licensure, and revoking, suspending or denying licensure in instances of incompetence, moral turpitude and other good and just cause, she wrote.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.