SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A proposed law aims to lift the veil of secrecy when a school worker is accused of crossing the line with children so that the employee will not get passed from district to district. House Bill 128 is the result of recommendations from a task force on school ethical misconduct, which included input from entities including the New Mexico Public Education Department, teachers unions, and school districts.
Rep. Debbie Sariñana (D-Albuquerque) is one of five legislators sponsoring the bill. She said the changes to strengthen the law are supposed to prevent what happened with Gary Gregor. The former teacher is serving a prison sentence of more than 100 years for raping and molesting girls in elementary school.
In 2018, ten years after the abuse, Nallely Hernandez faced him in court. “He actually made eye contact with me, and I just felt so much more empowered when he did that because I didn’t have that scared look in my eyes that I did when I was younger,” she told KRQE News 13 after testifying in court. What students learned in his class is monsters are real, a Santa Fe District Court judge told Gregor at his sentencing.
The most recent in a string of civil suits against the 64-year-old accuses him of abusing at least 12 elementary school girls in New Mexico. Sexual misconduct allegations against Gregor dated back to 1994 before he even came to New Mexico. Yet, the state gave him a teaching license in 2001, and he taught here for about a decade.
Lawsuits claim that despite teachers, parents, and students raising red flags about his disturbing behavior, Gregor continued to teach. He moved from school to school, starting with teaching 6th-grade special education at Ortiz Middle School in Santa Fe, then 4th grade at Agua Fria Elementary in Santa Fe. He also moved to the now-closed Mountain View Elementary in the Española School District and later taught 2nd grade at Fairview Elementary School in Española.
“These educators that abuse are often helped by school officials who let them quietly slip away when allegations arise. This practice of passing the trash finally has our undivided attention, and it must be addressed,” Rep. Sariñana told lawmakers during a presentation on the bill in the House Education Committee.
Rep. Sariñana believes the bill will add more safeguards to protect New Mexico students against abuse. To see the scope of the problem lawmakers like Rep. Sariñana are trying to address, KRQE News 13 reached out to the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority (NMPSIA). It provides liability insurance for all the public schools in New Mexico except Albuquerque Public Schools and charter schools. NMPSIA Executive Director Richard Valerio said, “One of the big cost drivers that we have within our liability expenditures is, of course, sexual misconduct, sexual molestation, things of that sort, which is pretty unfortunate.”
The graph above shows costs increasing in recent years, not from when the settlements were paid out but from when the misconduct is alleged to have happened. Over the past decade, payouts totaled anywhere from roughly $1.5-$2.5 million before spiking to $8.4 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. (The dollar figure in the 2019-2020 fiscal year has not yet been finalized.) The increase does not even include the $22.3 million in settlements following lawsuit after lawsuit against Gregor because those cases go back even further. “The hope is that over time these claims are mitigated, and we see less claims,” Valerio explained NMPSIA is in support of House Bill 128.
NMPSIA averages about nine claims a year. “Nine claims,” Rep. Sariñana exclaimed. “When I heard nine claims, that’s tough to stomach.” Sariñana said she has been a teacher herself for about 20 years.
“It happened at one of my schools. Somebody was there and then they were gone and nobody knew anything about it, and we just have to stop this,” she said.
House Bill 128 would make it so if someone does get fired for inappropriate behavior, it is not kept secret. School districts will be allowed to publicly disclose the reasons. In addition, even before they get the job, the hiring process will involve looking into past misconduct allegations instead of just an FBI background check, which may only reveal criminal convictions.
It is an attempt to close any loopholes that allowed someone like Gregor to move from school to school in New Mexico for so long despite multiple complaints about his behavior. Nearly two decades after the alleged abuse, some of his former students are still fighting for justice in court.
The bill proposes a host of other changes as well, including requiring training for volunteers and contractors working at schools so that they can identify and report suspected abuse or neglect. It appears to have bi-partisan support. After some amendments, the bill has unanimously passed the House Education and the House Judiciary Committees.