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Student-tracking bill aims to prevent another child tragedy

March 22, 2019

The last bill approved by state lawmakers in this year’s 60-day session calls for creation of a system to track students under age 18 so they don’t end up like Jeremiah Valencia, who disappeared from public schools before being found dead at age 13 in November 2017.

Jeremiah was discovered beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave near Nambé, according to authorities. His mother, the mother’s boyfriend and a son of the boyfriend were charged in the case.

After attending sixth grade at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School in Santa Fe, Jeremiah was enrolled for 2016-17 at West Las Vegas Middle School. Officials say his mother withdrew him in February 2017 and told them she was taking him back to Santa Fe. But Jeremiah never returned to school.

The boy’s death resulted in calls for improvements in the state’s child-protection system and laws.

House Bill 447, which the Senate approved 23-17 with just seconds remaining on the last day of the session Saturday, requires the state Public Education Department and the state Children, Youth and Families Department to develop a student-tracking system.

The system is to be developed by a task force made up representatives of the departments, juvenile court judges or their designees and child advocates.

Each student enrolled in public school will be assigned an identification number.

“This bill would give the PED and CYFD the chance to find red flags in a child’s life and find out where he or she is at,” said Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, one of the sponsors of the bill. “That’s our hope: that we don’t have any more children falling through the cracks.

“If we have a child who is suddenly not enrolled in schools, this new system could find him,” Trujillo added.

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who backed the bill, said Jeremiah’s death highlighted “a tragedy where there were gaps in the system that could have been covered and prevented.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has announced plans to initiate a Children’s Cabinet made up of department heads who will meet and share data about best practices, programs and problems impacting children. Morales said a task force looking for ways to track every child in the system will strengthen the cabinet’s work.

As the legislative session wound to a close, a few senators debated the worth of HB 447.

Critics said the public education department already assigns an identifier number to each student and questioned whether the bill would have any teeth.

Though there is no appropriation tied to the bill, an analysis of the legislation says the Children, Youth and Families Department estimates “a fiscal impact of $250,000 for initial implementation, presuming use of an existing software package and modifying as necessary.” Another $50,000 a year would be needed for licensing and maintenance, it stated.

Trujillo and Morales both said they expect the governor to sign the legislation.

“I know the governor has been committed to protecting children and making sure there’s more interagency collaboration,” Morales said. “So, I’m confident that she will see this as an important piece of legislation that will be signed.”

Jeremiah’s mother, Tracy Ann Peña, pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death and to drug offenses. She agreed to serve 12 years in prison under a plea deal.

The mother’s boyfriend, Thomas Wayne Ferguson, who had been charged with murder, hanged himself in jail while awaiting trial. Ferguson’s son, Jordan Anthony Nuñez, is jailed pending trial on charges of child abuse resulting in death and tampering with evidence.