Scandalous Doings at Taos Municipal Schools: Special Ed

By: Bill Whaley
14 November, 2013

Deep Background

According to The Taos News, in a story posted Oct. 22, by Elizabeth Cleary, “The superintendent, principals and the board of education of the Taos Municipal School District face the possibility of suspension after the state found issues with the district’s special education program.

In a second story posted Nov. 13 in The Taos News by Elizabeth Cleary it says, “The Taos Municipal School District’s special education program has been out of compliance for a number of years (my bold), and officials from the state’s public education department claim the Taos Schools superintendent has been unresponsive to the state’s concerns and that he failed to work with the state on special education issues.”

The Taos News goes on to say, “In a letter from the Public Education Department dated Friday (Nov. 8), the department claimed Superintendent Rod Weston “either directly, or indirectly through inaction or failure to maintain controls” failed to comply with the corrective action handed down to the Taos school district resulting from the complaint filed against the district’s special education program in 2011 and the resulting audit in 2012.

“Weston addressed the points in the letter during the school board meeting Tuesday (Nov. 12). He said allegations he had been unresponsive are inaccurate.

“This is the most serious thing that has happened since I’ve been on this board, and I expect it to be treated as such,” board member James Sanborn told Weston.”

Contrary to what Weston says, the Superintendent met with Schoolboard members Stella Gallegos, Lorraine Coca-Ruiz, advocates Lois Fernandez and Gene Sanchez, prior to his hiring about four years ago. He was told of the Special Ed problems and reminded of the Baston report findings. What? Indeed, Weston hired a colleague from Vermont to do a survey of the Special Ed problem and meet with parents.

Stella served on the board with Weston.Do you think Stella never brought up the Special Ed problems? If Weston can’t remember, he’s a liability, should resign immediately, and leave on the next stage to Yuma.

For years both TMS and The Taos News have ignored the scandal at Special Ed.

Since the state reimburses TMS for from twice to five times the amount of compensation for Special Ed students, one can only speculate that the lack of providing services has been a way for TMS to subsidize administrative and teacher salaries. In the past the Special Ed program has been accused of using the funds for parties and travel expenses.

The victims of the Special Ed program are those who need physical, mental, emotional and behavioral help. Sure, some folks, through luck or political influence or because of special advocates, got help. But untold numbers have not.

Below I am posting an excerpt from a series I began researching and writing in mid 2001 for Horse Fly. Special Ed advocate Stella Gallegos furnished me with documents and introduced me to multiple parents and kids, who were subjected to “class” and “cultural” discrimination. More than one parent told me, teachers said things like, “You’re no good and your parents were no good.”

Labeling kids as “no good” is one of the recurring motifs in both the school system and the justice system here in Taos. This deplorable attitude results in a vicious cycle of illiteracy and gang-bang culture. Take a look at inmates in the state prison system or here at home in Taos County Detention Center, and you will meet those kids and adults, who have been failed by callous and cruel education and penal system. There are a ton of reasons, social, political, and economic for the failure of society to serve the victims of cruelty, who are, in turn, are both victims of crime and perpetrators of crime against others and then victims of further crimes.

Yet, the Special Ed program is one of the few resources with access to those in need. These kids have been recognized as deserving by state and federal programs but these programs have been subsequently subverted by local administrators and politicians.

The excerpt from the series of more than 4,000 words from Horse Fly, May 2001, details not only the courage of former school aide, Stella Gallegos but also the courage of a multitude of parents and kids who came forward and spoke on the record to Horse Fly. Despite threats of retaliation at work or against kids at school or by the alleged justice system, these parents tried to keep their kids out of harms way.

At the time Horse Fly focused on kids with behavior problems and parents, who tried to make a difference in their kids’ lives but were treated negligently by both the schools and the justice system.  Some of you won’t like re-reading it because the denial, cover-up, and the cruelty results from a peculiar kind of structural discrimination aimed at those who can least defend themselves due to a cold-hearted administrative culture–perpetrated by so-called “sacred cows.”

When Stella was on the school board a few years ago, I inspected a portable classroom for Special Ed kids at Ranchos Elementary School that smelled of urine and was inadequate in every way. The custodians themselves expressed chagrin and said they were not given the resources or permission to clean up the classroom. One custodian told me it took a month to get a can of W-D 40 to fix a door. Certainly, the current Superintendent has known about the problems since he was hired—as have school board members, principals, and teachers.

Here’s the story from Horse Fly, May, 2001. Apparently, not much has changed.

“TAOS HIGH IS PROUD TO BE A
DRUG—FREE–CAMPUS”

“No student will be Left around”…9TH Grade Academy Slogan

“My Door is always open.”…TMS’s Superintendent Bobby Gonzales

Part II:

Last month Horse Fly began a series about the Special Ed program in the Taos Municipal Schools. Some of the general issues covered included parents’ and students’ rights, state and federal guidelines for Special Ed, and the implications of criminalizing children for engaging in social ills. An increasing number of academically-deprived and mentally, physically, or emotionally challenged students are sent to school with multiple disabilities accompanied by a thick portfolio of civil rights. But many of these students finish their education in jail or in the park because their civil rights are violated. (See Public Law 105-17, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 97) and Section 504, Office For Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education.) A learning disability and dope or hanging with the homeboys and boredom gets these kids into trouble. Teachers blame parents; administrators blame society or individual troublemakers; parents blame schools, the peer group, and television. No single cause explains the complexity of the problem. But common decency suggests these students shouldn’t be treated like political footballs.

In this issue, Horse Fly turns to the parents, the kids, and the advocates who speak up and say how the administration and the system works against those who really want to finish the first twelve years of school. The parents of these Special Ed children have run into roadblocks thrown up by bureaucrats. Smokescreens, paperwork, meetings, and mouthfuls of jargon are a cover for those who are motivated most by the politics of denial.

Incidentally, this piece is a bit tough on Special Ed administrator Jeanelle Pasternack and THS principal Santiago Tafoya. They are in the front lines, making decisions, and bearing the brunt of complaints from parents, kids, and social workers. During the school board election, Gary Embler said kids couldn’t get educated if they don’t attend school. If the Superintendent of Schools is in Santa Fe, can he provide leadership for the district, evaluate teachers and staff, or meet with parents who have complaints?

Home Sweet Home

A gray chain-link fence, topped by barbed wire, surrounds the concrete block structure on the school grounds at Taos High. As students and parents enter the crowded parking lot from the west at Cervantes street, they are greeted by a retired national guardsman. Once this gatekeeper practiced riot control techniques over at Bataan Hall like some Don Quixote during the sixties. At the east entrance to the high school from Gusdorf Street, the entrance is blocked by a locked gate during school hours. If an emergency occurs, there’s only one way out—on Cervantes St. Put that in your windmill.

On the sign above the entrance to the front doors of Taos High School, a cynical slogan says, “Taos High School is proud to be a drug free campus.” Parents and school board members claim they’ve seen kids passing bongs and lighting up joints right in front of that sign. Out of sight behind the high school’s main building next to Gusdorf are the dreaded portables, the resource rooms, where some of the Special Ed kids are “warehoused” or, in some cases, “isolated” from the campus.

Former Taos Municipal School Board President Luisa Valerio Mylet said the portables were “filthy” when she walked through them late last summer. Child Advocate and activist, Stella Martinez Gallegos, who worked as a fulltime substitute for Special Ed for two years, said that the portables once lacked heat, air-conditioning, even water. Now the portables are in better shape. Still, when I saw them, I felt like Mylet said in the Taos News, “pretty sad” (Aug. 17, 2000). Inside the high school building, the atmosphere reminds one more of claustrophobia or prison than it does the airy lightness associated with the free and open discussion of ideas.

Stella Gallegos wrote a piece in the Taos News (September 17, 2000) saying, “Students in this program (Special Ed) are in dire need of services promised to them throughout the school year in order for them to succeed in society. If we show respect to our youth, we have a lot to gain. The portables might get maintenance, but the other problems also need to be taken care of.”

Gallegos told the pesky insect “Hispanic kids are a target. They are supposed to go into resource rooms for special ed. You’re supposed to help’em catch up, exit into regular ed but at THS they (resources rooms) become day-care centers, a dumping ground. Anglo kids have more of a chance to exit out of special ed. There’s more fear of Anglos than of Hispanics. Parents depend on teachers to take care of ‘em. The Hispanic parents are part of a culture that has faith in system. Most of the teachers don’t understand Hispanic or Indian kids. Kids who have gotten in trouble, murderers, come from resource rooms.” They are ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) labeled but strong-willed or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). “But many have no business being in there. They should be included in regular ed.”

In a letter to the Taos Municipal School Board, dated Feb. 5, 2001, Gallegos wrote that because of her Taos News article, “I was never again called to substitute for special education resource rooms at Taos High.” Ms. Gallegos began her training as an advocate because of her own son, a Taos High Graduate, who is confined to a wheel chair by muscular dystrophy. She also advocates on behalf of a nephew and two nieces, who are special needs children. As Stella says in the February letter, “I will continue advocating for children and parents when they seek out my help whether Mrs. Pasternack likes it or not.”

(Jeanelle Pasternack is Taos Municipal School’s administrator for Special Ed. Reportedly, her husband, Bob is head of Special Ed for the State Department of Education (SDE). Critics say Jeanelle Pasternack likes things to run “smoothly.” Complaints to the SDE rarely get any response.).

Stella continues, “I do not need to be in a resource room to advocate for students. As long as the problems remain within the program, families will need support.”

Stella was called as a regular ed substitute, and, finally as Special Ed substitute at Enos Garcia after the February letter. She refused to go, according to a letter addressed to Director of Instruction, Albert Ortega. She wanted reassurance from the principal, Joann Ortiz that she was welcome. Gallegos also said that she worried about that the Educational Assistant who called her might get into trouble.

In a letter to Gallegos and in conversation with the pesky insect, Ortega confirmed that Stella was still on the official list of substitutes. Last week Ms. Gallegos graduated from UNM with a Bachelor’s degree in University Studies. Still nobody likes to call on somebody who speaks her mind about deficiencies in the program at the schools–except the pesky insect. (See Horse Fly, page 14.)

Stella says, “the kids in resource rooms really touched me. Who gives them the right to take away more kids.” Stella’s referring to the kids who have been forced to leave school by what many consider an arbitrary and unfair pattern of “unofficial harassment.”

A Young Woman

She’s cute, she smiles, but she’s not a physically imposing sixteen-year-old. She seemed small sitting in the chair in my office. She has just about finished eleventh grade in a private school. In the early grades at public school, she was rated at level B and received speech therapy. (Special Ed kids are rated A,B,C,D. As a child moves down the ladder income for the schools from the state increases.) She had problems with studying and reading comprehension. In the 8th grade, she was segregated for fighting. She seemed tough enough on the inside as we spoke. The schools assigned her to a Level D portable in high school.

She says, “They told me I wasn’t smart enough. That I was Trouble. That I Wasn’t self-contained. THS was boring. They were teaching 3rd grade, repeating elementary school. I knew the gang members, the worst, the roughest. They’d hug me. Then the kids didn’t like me. I tried to conform, change. I got suspended for fighting. For anything. Couldn’t walk down the halls. It’s not my fault. I was in classes with wheel chairs, mentally and physically disabled. They wouldn’t allow me back into high school. I had friends at THS. But I was only allowed in the portable, back by the gates. 1 of 1200. No contact with other kids. No water. Others had more freedom. I was there from 8 to 3 for two weeks. ‘Be self-contained,’ they said. `Prove yourself to be in regular ed.’ I had English 1,2,3 and history all day long. I wanted to drop out. I met with the counselor and social worker. I Agreed not to argue. They said I had all these problems. Then I was a guinea pig at Casa de Corazon.. I was sent by Pasternack. The police report said there was `No fight’ but an `Argument.’ The security guards said there was ‘no hitting.’ I was arrested for somewhat of a shove. Handcuffed at High School.

“Jeanelle (Pasternack) said I couldn’t say a word. Don’t look. Don’t say `arrested.’ Bench warrant from D.A.’s office. Casa Corazon for 6-7 months. I wanted to go back to Taos High. I was not allowed. Santiago Tafoya (Principal) said I needed `discipline.’ He didn’t give me reasons.”

She went to a private high school without transcripts or a transition plan but the Special Ed program eventually, was forced to pay the tuition. She continues, “I was home for a week after Casa Corazon residential. I didn’t know my family. They put me in 11th grade classes but I had no background. Didn’t want to tell my teachers. I did two years worth of work not even in a whole year. No trouble with teachers, no fighting. Hard work,. Made some adjustments. The teachers read the complaints. They didn’t believe I did all that. I like Art. Creative Writing. I’m thinking about college. SATs. ”

Taos Municipal Schools paid tuition and, allegedly, supervised the young woman’s Special Ed-IEP (Individual Education Plan) for private school. Stella Gallegos helped this young woman and her family by contacting the Federal Office of Civil Rights. “Parents don’t know their rights,” says Stella. “Special Ed parents don’t know why their kids are there. She needed support. She was very angry. They (TMS) had no faith in her.”

“My boys have a right to an education.”
–Wanda Valencia

He’s incarcerated at the Springer Boy’s Home, a jail for juveniles. After reading the police reports and the IEPs, it seems like he and some other pubescent kids burgled a house. They didn’t get much except probation for their efforts.. In the seventh grade he took some brass knuckles to school–once. The terms of his probation included no marijuana, no hanging out with gang members (your friends from childhood, your buddies, your homies, your neighbors). He was hyperactive, according to his mother, Wanda Valencia. He was in Special Ed because of low reading and writing skills. They tried Cylert, which is like Ritalin but it made him dizzy and lightheaded. Wanda thought that he would grow out of the problems.

She said, “He was hungry all the time for carrot sticks, snacks. They accused him of having a gang name. He denies it. He finished 7th and 8th grade, middle school, in Alternative School. Thirty people went to his IEP for high school, including Mr. Tafoya (Taos High Principle) and Pasternack. Mr. Tafoya said my son would not be allowed, `not in my school.’ Tafoya said he was `A leader of a gang. The kids were scared. The school will go bonkers.’ My son cried. He had another IEP. He had a shadow. (A shadow is a behavior management specialist, an adult who follows a student around all day at school. Think about the humiliation.) He couldn’t have lunch at the alternative high school with the others. It’s for your own protection, they said. He didn’t have home work or school work. That IEP was not good for high school. They were searching him three times a day. And the alternative school was no good. Bad crowd. Holes in the walls. Bad language. No respect.

“He got to the high school, later, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Students were giving a teacher a hard time. The teacher pushed my son. He told somebody so and so shoved me. The probation office issued an arrest warrant for him because he was a so-called gang-member. Their main concern is gang members, hanging out with gang members. They call it `unlawful assembly.’ And they say he’s borderline retarded. That way they get more money. Level D. They call the police before calling parents. My son took the rap. It was a parole violation.

“He’s 5’10” or 6’ with broad shoulders. Everybody liked him. He got caught up with reading when he worked one on one. But he had dirty urine. Pot. He went to treatment. Jeanelle was more concerned about what he did after school than in school. Teachers should go to treatment centers. He dropped out of school and was arrested for so-called gang activity. He left in tears. They never asked what can we do for you. They arrested my son. The cops said he had a record. as a leader of a gang. Three months in jail here. Now Springer. He’s working on his GED.

“My other son is fourteen, tall slender, wears baggy pants. He’s bored. So far behind. I’m worried that he’s going in the same direction as his older brother. He’s on probation for bringing a pipe. He’s special-ed labeled for behavior, not for academics. They never asked what can we do? He doesn’t want tutoring after school. He’s very frustrated when he’s reading. They’re all in the same classes and acting up. All these kids, these gangs, are labeled once they are on probation. The fourteen-year-old gets no field trips or dances even though he’s made a three-year reading gain in six months. They are supposed to articulate the least restrictive environment.”

At the fourteen-year-old’s IEP, nine adults, including his mother, Wanda, and me, sat in a circle around the boy. He was quiet, stoic, probably embarrassed. The teachers, counselors, social workers, juvenile probation officers discussed the young man’s alleged marijuana use rather freely. They spoke to him in patronizing tones and talked about him in the third person. At what point does marijuana use become a crime? When do you call the cops? And which kids do you ruin by calling the cops? If they called the cops on all the kids who smoked or did drugs, the schools wouldn’t be so crowded. Maybe they’re waiting for the county to build a new jail.

A Social Worker

Free services are offered to kids with behavior problems. But the social workers have a conflict with JPOs (Juvenile Probation Offices) who say, “We want these kids out of here.” Like others, parents and advocates, social workers say “They are targeted. Some kids become a focus of attention because of ADHD when they are younger. They’re watched. Others are invisible. Juvenile justice doesn’t work. The kids are accused when they may be innocent. But they plead guilty and receive probation for six months. It’s simpler and they don’t have lawyers. Then they can’t hang out with gang members or friends. They have no rights.

“At the schools everyone wants to keep the administration happy, make things go “smoothly.” The school in Taos looks good and keeps the Pasternacks happy. But there are no networks and only limited grants. The schools need Behavior Intervention Plans. Positive Behavior Intervention plans. The school is non-cooperative. Locally, they play hard ball. They exclude your kid. He or she is pushed out.

“But there are free training sessions. There’s an Office of Mental Health in School because they want to keep up appearances. Students got rights more than five years ago in 1997. But the schools only became aware lately. There’s a climate of fear because of shootings. The schools are paranoid. They have no knowledge of how `inclusion’ works. Where are the mentors? There are insufficient aids. No support. It’s socialization v. gangs. What is that? Neighborhood friends hang out at Mom’s houses. We need a jail diversion program. The Feds require alternatives to suspension. The schools need to look at stabilizing these kids to keep them in the community.

“They need managed care and more `Behavior Management Specialists.’ But these kids are a drain on the budget. Get ‘em out is the attitude. A child’s disability interferes with the ability to focus. ADHD is going up because of the environment, food, electronics, day care, food additives. Still, we shouldn’t ID these kids. They don’t receive a foundation for learning in the lower grades. The teachers don’t understand language structure and phonics. In Jr. high, it catches up, at puberty. They say that they would rather be bad than stupid. You need to ID poor readers in K-1. Special Ed in Junior High is a stigma, a prison. According to the National Institute of Health, one-fifth of the children are not fluent readers. Some have rather obvious neuro-biological disorders; they are bipolar, ADHD, and have learning disabilities.

Cindy Martinez: “Quote me.”

She’s Married to Alonso “Rocky” Martinez. They have five kids and have addressed encountered every issue at the Taos Municipal Schools, according to Cindy. Two were in special ed. The principal of the high school, Santiago Tafoya, a cousin of the family, said, allegedly, according to Cindy: “Mrs. Martinez, high school is not for everyone.”

Here she’s a 17-year-old sophomore. Very happy. Thrilled. Bright clean, colorful. You walk into ,the high school and within twenty feet, you’re greeted. Where are you going? Why? Here’s the office and a visitor’s pass. There are no kids in halls, no bad language. There’s no chain-link fence or barbed wire. There are 3000 kids. They have books. The school asks for zero money.

“I have a son in special ed, in a 7th grade resource room. He failed 7th last year and they refused to give him an 8th grade assignment without my consent. I wanted him to repeat seventh grade. He was in the library everyday. They made me sign papers. It was Coercion. They are refusing to educate our kids. But they pushed him up to eighth grade. They can’t keep them back . There’s no where to put ‘em. He’s not inclined toward academics. He’s unmotivated and has to unlearn the crap from Taos, where they said he didn’t need to perform. The Alternative School was no different.

“I was called to school because of Veronica. She was belligerent. Her teacher said your `daughter is beautiful.’ Yes, I agreed, we think so. `No,’ the teacher said, `she’s drop-down gorgeous.” So? `She has an impact on the boys, boys drop in their chairs. I can’t get their attention. She has a belligerent attitude.’ I said that Veronica was a high intensity athlete. So they sent her to Alternative School for two hours every afternoon after an IEP meeting. I’m not making this stuff up. Santiago Tafoya also said, that she’s “too beautiful to sit in the classroom.” He’s a cousin. She passed 9th grade with good grades but did no work. None. Kids say, `I don’t think I can do that.’ Teachers say, `You don’t have to.’

“My oldest daughter was in regular education and graduated from THS with honors. She went to N.M. State and took a year of remedial courses. She never wrote a term paper in high school. My second daughter was labeled for having `problems at home.’ She was partying and got arrested. She lived with her Uncle. She was on the honor role in Junior High but dropped out. Now she’s getting a GED. It’s gut wrenching. Both me and my husband have college degrees in Nursing and drafting. We’re both just short of a B.S. and a B.A.

“Our 5th grader is average. He’s discouraged and gets bad grades. He’s anti-school and Negative, frustrated, angry. But he’s bouncing back. He’s got Taos bred emotional issues.

“For the first time ever, they say, `Like’ and `School’ in the same sentence. They get up at 5 a.m. to get buses. They don’t miss. There are no objections. They struggle to keep up. The 7th grader denies having homework. But I have daily communication with the counselor and teacher. They’re making new friends. From kindergarten they always hated school. Now they like school. It’s a first for our family.

“Veronica is on the team and in a club. It’s the best wrestling in the U.S. She can’t beat the boys here. It’s non-discriminatory. She works out in the gym. In Taos the athletic director wouldn’t allow her to enter the gym to say goodbye. Santiago Tafoya and Anthony Gutierrez, the athletic director, were frustrating to deal with.

“Rocky and I, gave up an income of $70,000 a year in Taos for lower end wages here. Now he’s a laborer but there he was a foreman or crew leader. They ask him for his Green Card and pay him $10 an hour. But our children were drowning. I’ve got two kids from a relative in Taos. They were on the honor roll in Junior High and went to Ds and Fs in High School.

“The entire environment in Taos is corrupt, corroded. My niece ditched from 9th grade on but passed into 10th and 11th. She likes school here. She and my nephew have been good. Taos is unmotivated. They drive parents to frustration. You feel powerless, empty. I drove Veronica to school and saw kids passing around a bong. I asked Mr. Litke (Middle School Vice Principal) to explain the dress code to my son but he said, ‘I don’t have it in me to fight anymore.’ The school doesn’t care. It Needs to fall. The State or the Feds should take it over. I say, `Quit ripping our kids off.’ Is it too much to expect them to teach our kids to read, write, do arithmetic. I Ran for my life. I told my kids, `choosing not to be educated is not an option.’”

Unlike Cindy and Rocky Martinez, most parents can’t afford to leave town or don’t want to make the sacrifice. Some people move here because they think the “appearance” of a multicultural community offers them a rich “non-discriminatory” environment. However, Taosenos, both Hispanic and Native Americans, experience discrimination based on class or family reputation or because they are not “politically” well-connected. The culture of “envidia” combined with the propaganda of public relations or “the politics of denial” has created a perverse school environment.

Appendix: Page 14 reference

EDITORIAL: Due Process

Sometime late this summer or early fall the Taos Municipal Schools and Taos County will be asking residents to vote for new gross receipts taxes. Both entities want to build new, badly needed facilities.

In this week’s issue of Horse Fly, a number of local women tell the story of how they believe the schools are short-changing their children by resisting federal and state guarantees regarding the right to be educated. Families are being forced to turn to the federal government’s Office of Civil Rights or to leave town or to hire advocates and lawyers. Even the agenda posted by the school board doesn’t comply with the spirit of the “Open Meetings Act.” It is neither as specific nor as public as it should be. Meeting dates change frequently. The board discourages public discussion by conducting meetings for the sake of song and dance public relations instead of focusing on real policy issues.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Taos County because of both incompetent staff decisions and commission irregularities. Violations of civil rights at County head quarters have led to lawsuits in Federal and State courts.

Taos Pueblo, Taos Municipal Schools, and Taos County generally ignore the First and Fourteenth Amendments; free speech, due process and the right to equal treatment under the law. Regardless of whether you’re a newcomer or a native, your’re just as likely to be treated badly by one of these three entities.

If the Schools and the County can’t treat the public with courtesy and good will, then the public shouldn’t support new taxes.

Congratulations are in order for three UNM graduates. Stella M. Gallegos received her Bachelor of University Studies degree. The longtime child’s advocate has won the Horse Fly internship award and will be reporting on the schools this summer. Councilwoman Erlinda Gonzales earned a Bachelor of University Studies degree. She plans to study for a Master’s Degree. Gladys Kozoll received her Associate of Arts in Criminal Justice with honors. She’s going to investigate the Tribal Government.

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