By Ike Swetlitz
Gov. Michelle Luján Grisham is less than two weeks away from her second legislative session, and she’s got a lot more on her mind than passing a budget.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Searchlight New México on Jan. 6, the governor previewed her plans to reduce violent crime through new public safety legislation. She addressed the need for a diverse economy that’s less dependent on oil and gas revenues.
She also expressed outrage over the use of physical restraint in New México’s schools. “The damage that can be done by using terrible efforts to control a child are outrageous,” Lujan Grisham said.
She was responding to Searchlight’s recent investigations into the use of physical restraint by staff in the Albuquerque Public Schools. State law requires that school staff notify parents when they restrain or seclude a child. But the state’s largest district is breaking that law — repeatedly — and escaping consequences, Searchlight found.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In your inaugural address, you made children your number one concern. What is the most important thing the state can do to become a better place for kids?
Every department has a role. We have incredible poverty. We’re dancing around the edges of this, which is why we’ve said, look, you’ve got to have a moonshot in education. We have to do things from cradle to grave. And you have to have a major set of investments that last a complete generation so that we’re eliminating poverty and we’re really clear about changing the dynamics of these families in this state. And we’ve not really done that.
If children are your priority, you better be able to demonstrate that in your budget priorities. And as you can see, nearly half of our additional [proposed] spending is all in education.
You brought in out-of-state experts to run CYFD (Children, Youth and Families Department), the Public Education Department, and the Early Childhood Education and Care Department. Why?
We have some incredible leaders in the state of New México. And I think there is a lot to be said for someone who is familiar with and familiar to any number of stakeholders.
But because we don’t have a universal early childhood education program, and we’re still struggling to put together so many of the components for child well-being, we’ve never demonstrated that level of leadership.
I’d like to ask you about Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary-designate of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, who came here from Washington, D.C. You appointed her about nine months after you signed the bill creating the department. Why did it take so long?
I interviewed a ton of folks and everyone had an incredible component, but they didn’t have all of it. And that’s when I made the decision that we needed to really open it up.
There’s something really special about people who have relationships with New México families. I don’t discount that. And as a parent — I’m a parent and a grandparent — that matters to me.
But in the end you want someone who already demonstrated putting this effort together quickly, but also professionally and robustly.
Your administration inherited the Martínez and Yazzie lawsuits, court cases brought against the state. The plaintiffs alleged New México was violating the state constitution by failing to properly educate economically disadvantaged students, English-language learners, Native American kids, and children with disabilities. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and you chose not to appeal. Many states have faced similar massive education lawsuits. They can drag on for decades. What’s your legal strategy?
We didn’t appeal it because we don’t disagree with the findings here that we failed our kids, that we weren’t putting enough resources, training, and accountability measures, and a system that makes a difference.
The legal strategy, though, is not to let the courts run education. That’s not their role or their responsibility, and they’re arms-length away.
I’m feeling really good about where we are, the measurable stuff that you can get in just one year.
It was appalling for me to find out — as we are putting together our education cabinet and priorities — that we don’t require the districts to tell us about behavior issues that require seclusion or restraint. It’s appalling.
We’re going to require districts to provide us data about [restraint and seclusion], so when you ask me about it, you’re going to have real meaningful information to compare schools and strategies — and so are we. We can’t hold people accountable if we don’t know what they’re doing.
You’re talking about students who are physically restrained or secluded by school staff, which we wrote about late last year. Your plan is for PED to require schools and districts to report to the state the amount of restraint and seclusion that’s used?
You bet. I have no doubt that we don’t have enough information to really know just how severe the problem is.
On public safety — last year, there were at least 82 homicides in Albuquerque, a record high. What is the most effective way to make the state’s largest city a safer place to live?
Getting everybody on the same page for public safety.
We didn’t do behavioral health, we didn’t do right by education, we haven’t done right by jobs, and you create a situation in which we have real serious significant issues that have to be addressed.
We’re going to have a very aggressive public safety package going into the session. We want to enhance penalties for use of a firearm. This is what states and cities like New York did that really reduced their violent crime. We know what strategies work, and let’s invest in them.
We’re going to work with the district attorneys to make sure that we are using strategies that not only pick people up [but also] keep dangerous repeat offenders behind bars. We’re going to make sure that we’ve got hate crime legislation that really is meaningful. We’re going to do something about domestic terrorism. You know, we don’t deal with high-risk issues in schools, or domestic threats, in a way that they’re actionable. We’re going to do all of that.
Are you considering changes to the pretrial detention system? A state constitutional amendment and subsequent policy change has forbidden people charged with crimes from being locked up because they can’t afford bail. It also led to policies that enabled more people charged with crimes — but not convicted — to live outside of jail while their cases are going through the courts. Is this working, or does it need any changes?
So, I am supporting what was announced [on Jan. 6]: a 15-member committee or commission that the [New México] Supreme Court is launching [to consider possible changes], so we deal with this better. I support the constitutional amendment that said, “You don’t keep poor people behind bars because they’re poor.” That’s fair, and that belongs in the constitutional amendment.
Getting the tools right is critical. And I don’t think we have done that. And so I think the Supreme Court is on the right side here. I have an operations group and a leadership group on public safety with sheriffs, DAs, PDs, my Public Safety department, the state police, every first responder you can imagine, Homeland Security — everyone at the table, really working through these kinds of strategies, so I support that. If they need more in terms of legislation, I’m open.
Ike Swetlitz is a Staff Writer with Searchlight New México, a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting and innovative data journalism in New México.
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