ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A discrimination lawsuit between Albuquerque Public Schools, a former teacher and a former high school student will move forward after a recent decision by the New Mexico Court of Appeals. The lawsuit surrounds a high-profile incident where the former teacher is accused of cutting one student’s hair and making a racial remark to another student.
The dispute dates back to October 2018 at Cibola High School. During a class on Halloween, then-English teacher Mary Jane Eastin allegedly called student McKenzie Johnson a “bloody Indian,” then snipped another student’s braid. The incident prompted an apology from then-district Superintendent Raquel Reedy.
Following the event, Eastin was eventually let go from her APS job. McKenzie Johnson filed a lawsuit against the teacher and the school district with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and other advocates. For nearly two years, the case has been tied up in the appeal process.
The Court of Appeals’ recent decision overturns an April 2021 district court decision to dismiss the case. In a unanimous vote, a panel of three appeals court judges found that APS is subject to anti-discrimination protections outlined in the New Mexico Human Rights Act.
“When I heard about the ruling, I was about to cry,” said McKenzie Johnson, reacting to the decision in an interview with KRQE News 13 Thursday. “Overall, teachers have the responsibility to make their classroom as comfortable as possible for the children that they’re teaching. And, the fact that we’re surrounded by so many Native communities, I expect more from them.”
KRQE News 13 has reached out to Albuquerque Public Schools for comment on the decision, but the district has yet to provide a response as of 3 p.m. Thursday. Previously, the district has declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The appeal centered around a disagreement over whether or not the New Mexico Human Rights Act was applicable to the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2020. One month after the filing, attorneys for Eastin and the APS Board of Education asked the district court to dismiss the lawsuit.
The defendants argued that because Cibola High School isn’t a “public accommodation,” the student can’t argue discrimination under the New Mexico Human Rights Act. In the past, New Mexico courts have defined public accommodations as things like inns and have not considered some schools (like the University of New Mexico) a public accommodation, the argument goes.
In response, Johnson’s legal team argued that the NM Human Rights Act defines public accommodation as “any establishment offering its services, accommodations, or facilities other than bona fide private clubs or other places . . . that are by their nature and use distinctly private.” Under that definition, Cibola High School could count, the argument goes. They also argued that Albuquerque Public Schools was negligent in operating the school and that the student suffered a bodily injury.
Ultimately, Bernalillo County District Court Judge Benjamin Chavez ruled against the student in April 2021. The judge ruled that the school district doesn’t count as a public accommodation. But that decision was overturned last month.
In a decision written by Judge Miles Hanisee, the Court of Appeals ruled that the NM Human Rights Act clearly applies to schools in certain cases. If a public school official refused to teach someone based on the individual’s race, the NM Human Rights Act would clearly apply, the court argued. Shammara Henderson and Gerald Baca concurred with the decision.
The case now goes back to Bernalillo County District Court to be tried further. It’s not clear how long court proceedings could take.
“The physical, verbal, and emotional abuse that Native American students at Albuquerque public schools have endured is a perpetuation of historical harms dating back to the late 19th Century when Native American students were subject to pervasive violence at government boarding schools,” American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico Senior Indigenous Justice Staff Attorney Preston Sanchez said in a press release. “This week the court made clear that APS and – all public schools in New Mexico – have an obligation to ensure the school system does not continue to replicate our country’s racist past.”