Much of what the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education heard before its March 13 meeting was disturbing.
Five people came before them in the public comment section, which preceded getting down to business, each alleging words and deeds that were insensitive and hurtful.
Cleveland High senior Ivan Torres, the district lead of “Diversify Our Narrative for RRPS,” spoke first, relating culturally insensitive stories about a white middle school teacher who, when told about an incident that was offensive to Blacks, replied, “I’ve experienced racism from Black people;” an AP U.S. hsistory teacher who told a class that during World War II there were “good Nazis” and African-American people through the ages were “The Blacks;” and a CHS student who “wore a Nazi armband to class,” was sent to the principal’s office, removed it and not disciplined.
“It is really a surprise that things like this occur in a school district where minority students make up a majority of the student population,” and “minority people only make up a small fraction of those in administration,” Torres told the board. “This district must re-imagine its approach to diverse education, and that starts with an independent office of Diverse Equality and Inclusion.”
Former RRPS teacher Mary Bissell agreed, telling the Observer she decided to leave teaching after hearing of these incidents and witnessing some of her own.
“It’s really hard to love students like your ow, and to try to support them in your class and tell them they’re safe, when they leave your classroom and they’re not.
“Because I’m white, I have had other staff members say things to me … ‘The Indians had it coming; we were just doing our white thing.’ I have called them out personally, I have called them out to district leaders ‑ and it’s always sort of, ‘You know they mean well; you know they love the kids.’
“The final straw was the Nazi incident,” she told the board, which was extremely hurtful because her husband is Jewish; his grandfather was the lone family member who survived the Holocaust, she said.
As much as she loves teaching, Bissell said she’s tired of fighting: “I realize that sometimes you have to move on, and you have to fight in other ways.”
She suggested sending out an anonymous survey to RRPS staff members: “I think you would be astounded at the amount of ignorance and hateful comments.”
CHS junior Kaiya Brown, a Navajo, said during the earlier press conference, “The majority of my issues that I have have been from the staff and not students … I’ve been told that being loud, I’m ‘making a pow-wow.’
“It’s unfortunate that students have to step up for something to change rather than the staff and parents at our school keeping us safe.”
Barbara Jordan, a Black woman who has a son at CHS, said her family has been in Rio Rancho since 2015, after her career in the Air Force ended, and her son has been called the “N word” several times.
“I see nothing has changed. I have made numerous attempts to get action, but I’m often ignored – I don’t even get a reply back from the school district,” she said in the presser. “Every time I email the superintendent, email our mayor (Jordan ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2022), I get no response – and this has to stop, and it has to stop now.”
“We’re not going to go away,” Brown told the board. “We need your help, starting from the top down. We need you to take action now.”
Board President Amanda Galbraith and vice president Jeffery Morgan said they were disturbed by what was said but believed those incidents had taken place at least a year earlier.
“Honestly, I was really grateful that they came in and spoke up for those things. I think it’s always important for us to listen to those experiences and those concerns for those who have experienced those things,” Galbraith said. “What I thought was unfortunate is that a lot of those events seemed to have taken place a long time ago. I believe that Nazi symbol that was worn and such was a couple years ago.”
As for Torres’ suggestion that a Diverse Equality and Inclusion office be set up, Galbraith said, “I’m not going to say it is a good idea or a bad idea; I would need to look into it more. I know … there are other districts that have that. I was very intrigued by what they were saying and I’d like to sit down with (Superintendent Sue) Cleveland and with the district staff and talk a little bit more about that, and read a little bit more about that and see what that looks like.
“Usually, we do hear a lot from the public when this sort of things are happening,” Galbraith added. “We all know, no matter where we are, there are people who are not great people, who have hate.”
There is a relatively new “Equity Council” in RRPS. Its mission statement says, “The Rio Rancho Public Schools Equity Council is composed of individuals who represent various stakeholder groups including student, parent, family member, staff and community members. But it doesn’t seem a place to address the alleged incidents brought to the board Monday evening.
“I was kind of disturbed,” said Morgan. “I do know there are certain situations, certain things going on, but I didn’t know it was to that level, so, yeah, I was a little disturbed by that.”
Morgan, who is Black, has a son that graduated from Rio Rancho High School – and “has never told us he had any issues (there)” – and a wife who is the administrative assistant at CHS fors principal Scott Affentranger.
“My wife and I talked, and she said, ‘No, every situation that was mentioned, we did deal with those individuals, but we’re not privy to tell people what our actions are.’ I said we’ve got to find a way of letting people know that these individuals were dealt with, because if we don’t let them know – because that was echoed … from all the people that spoke – they didn’t feel like nothing was ever being done.”
“As a school district and as individuals we welcome and embrace diversity. We want our schools to be places where students of all races and backgrounds feel safe and valued,” Beth Pendergrass, RRPS’s chief communications, strategy and engagement officer, told the Observer. “We would love and welcome more diversity amongst our staff members and administration and have struggled to find ways to diversify our applicant pool. In our strategic plan, we identified our objective under ‘Staff Excellence’ as ‘RRPS will recruit, induct and retain a dynamic, diverse and high-quality staff.’
“I can guarantee you people are looking into it,” she said. “We do want to hear from students; it’s important that we follow up with the students. We do take these things seriously — we can be better.”
Pendergrass said there are steps in place to address concerns like those brought before the board: “We have systems and processes in place to ensure we address student, staff and parent concerns. If they feel that a concern has not been appropriately addressed, there are steps in place to take their concern to the next level. We can do a better job of communicating this process.
Morgan added that perhaps the district’s policies can be tweaked for the future.
“I would also kind of massage the policies and procedures that we have in place, to maybe incorporate specific wording, certain racial slurs that have been stated. But I truly believe that there needs to be a committee that works with some of these situations and some of these circumstances that these people find themselves in,” Morgan said.
(* In the current school year, with more than 17,300 RRPS students, 58.4% are Hispanic, 30.5% are White/Caucasian and 5.3% are Native American.)