Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

*This story has been updated to reflect corrections as of 2/24/21

The Paper. continues to cover New Mexico’s educational landscape in the wake of the Yazzie/Martinez court decision. One aspect within the lawsuit highlights the disparities for special needs students in the state.

While broadband issues and Native language instruction have become focal points in the last year, families with children with special needs have found themselves navigating a rough road during the pandemic. Bianca, 29, was one of many parents who shared their stories. Like many others during the pandemic, she quit her job as a last resort to homeschool her children after their public school left her three autistic children with virtually nothing in terms of a plan. Alvino Sandoval is a parent and special needs advocate who said that children in rural areas like his in Alamo, N.M., have not received counseling, special needs care or instruction since March of last year.

For students with special needs, the state’s Public Education Dept. currently oversees issues that arise with IEP’s, or an “Individualized Education Plan.” These are developed by the family and the school district, as well as teachers, therapists and others. A child who has difficulty learning and functioning and has been identified as a special needs student is a candidate for an IEP. Kids struggling in school may qualify for support services and resourcesAccording to the 2019 State Child Count performed by NMPED, over 53,000 children in their database have an IEP.

To address some of the ongoing issues that students with special needs lack in support services and advocate for stronger oversight of IEPs, House Bill 222 was introduced. If passed, HB 222 would provide an ombud or an independent advocate that would provide legal advice and help, including investigation, resolution, access to student records, reference for non-compliance actions and protocols, as well as requiring and reviewing annual reports. This new office of the ombud would not be housed under the Public Education Department but rather with the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, which oversees home and community-based Medicaid waiver programs. Other states like Wisconsin, Virginia and Washington State have created offices similar to the one proposed in the bill.

During a Feb. 15 House Education Committee hearing, Rep. Liz Thomson made this statement: “We talked about this at great length, keeping the ombud under the umbrella of NMPED. However, families distrust the PED, and it is a longstanding, long-held, adversarial relationship. PED does currently have people on staff to sort out special education issues. Families are at the point now where that they get a lawyer before even going to PED, because they’ll feel they’ll be patted on the head. So when looking at where this program will be held, we knew it could not be PED.”

In an interview with The Paper., Rep. Thomson said, “I have been pounding the drums and the pavement for over a decade with these issues. This will effectively provide parents an advocate to inform them as to what these kids are entitled to and how to get access to it.” She went on to say, “The Legislative Education Study Committee would give updates; I got sick of it and threw a tantrum, asking to bring light to the fact we need help on our end. Yazzie/Martinez has allowed us a bigger bullhorn to use, but we are still often the last item of discussion.” She also mentioned that the case helped bring more stakeholders to the table, and she hopes that this will help bring to the forefront the services that special needs students are lacking.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the conditions of special needs students but has also helped some communities. Rural communities like Cuba and Tohajillee have found the state’s virtual platform helpful. “For kids learning virtually, there are kids with hearing or visual impairments. Do the parents have access to the right equipment when being pushed toward virtual learning? The teachers left to manage this are often left to teach outside of their specialty and asked to fit programs to school and parent resource limitations. Think about all the schools in New Mexico, all those kids in small schools that are just not receiving services at all right now,” said Sandoval.

Charlene Ortiz has a child with special needs and works as a special education assistant teacher with the Grants Cibola County Schools. She has seen both sides of the issue: the parent perspective and the school perspective. “When COVID hit, all the special needs kids got pushed to the back burner. We all got pushed to virtual, and some kids—my daughter included—are not able to physically sit and engage with a screen for more than 30 minutes at a time. I have asked my tribe to advocate for me; I have had to go and advocate for myself and my child, just to be heard. But still nothing. At the district level, we just don’t have enough instructors. We are not given any help on the virtual side. We have many times come close to doing scheduled learning, but lockdowns—statewide and tribal—have put a stop to all of those possibilities. I’ve seen my own daughter struggle and seen a decline in her health without proper social engagement.”

The final hurdle for HB 222 to pass is a financial one. The bill seeks nearly $300,000 in funding to get started and possibly more once the office is opened. New Mexico’s unique education landscape of rural, Tribal and metropolitan schools, the lack of specialty teachers, the inequality of resources, special education in N.M. may need a lighthouse all its own. 

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Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.