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New Mexico lawmakers aim to crack down on abusive teachers

March 20, 2021 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico state Legislature has passed a bill aimed at reducing the rehiring of abusive teachers and addressing the rising costs of child-abuse-related settlements.

The Senate passed the bill 37-0 on Friday evening, in the last 24 hours of the annual legislative session.

The bill expands the definition of school personnel background checks beyond criminal convictions to include sexual abuse investigations and serious violations of school policies. It also amends current law to allow school districts to disclose publicly the reasons for firing an educator.

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It mandates that school personnel and volunteers take abuse detection and reporting training and directs government agencies to maintain accurate and current lists of personnel fired for abuse.

The bill takes aim at a practice known as “passing the trash,” in which a school district may recommend or give a neutral review of a teacher suspected of abusing students in order to get them to leave.

One teacher who left a school in Santa Fe on a “neutral” recommendation after being accused of student abuse was rehired in Española, New Mexico. He was later convicted of rapes of children at both schools between 2004 and 2008 and sentenced to 108 years in prison. School insurance policies paid out over $20 million in damages.

While instances of student sex abuse convictions have declined in New Mexico schools in recent years, the severity of assaults has risen, resulting in increased settlements. according to data released by the Public Schools Insurance Authority last year. As a result, liability insurance costs have gone up by 9% for schools in the state since 2018.

On average, 9.5 abuse claims are settled each year, costing the state around $80 million since 1987, according to the Public Schools Insurance Authority.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.