The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _July 1997

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New Mexico Update

From the Editor: In the October, 1996, issue of the Braille Monitor we reported on the distressing events over the past twenty years and more at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped (NMSVH). Things have continued to happen during the intervening months. One of the most hopeful events was that Governor Johnson appointed Jim Salas, a leader of the National Federation of the Blind, as a member of the school's board of trustees. The following three news articles, taken from two Albuquerque newspapers, are self-explanatory.

 

Principal of Blind School Voted Out, Regents Let Boss Go After 19-Year Service
(Taken from the May 3, 1997, Albuquerque Journal)

The Associated Press. The New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped, undergoing a federal investigation, will not renew the principal's contract, school regents have decided.

The regents voted 3 to 2 last week in Albuquerque not to renew Diane Baker's contract, which expires June 30. She has worked for the school for nineteen years.

"I'm not going to talk about the specific reasons" why the contract was not renewed, Board of Regents President James Salas said.

"The Board has to do what it thinks is right, just like all of the decisions of the school," he said.

J. Kirk Walter, school superintendent, said he had recommended that Baker's contract be renewed.

"She's put in a tremendous amount of time and effort here," he said. "I feel she's done an excellent job with both students and staff."

Federal agents have been investigating whether the rights of students were violated at the school, officials have said.

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department said in a February 26 letter to Governor Gary Johnson that investigators would look into whether students at the school were physically and sexually abused, whether they had adequate medical care, and whether the education and habitation at the school were appropriate.

The school has been under investigation by the state attorney general's Office since June, 1996, when nine students sued former Superintendent Jerry Watkins and several current and former school employees, alleging they were physically and sexually abused.

The allegations covered a time period from 1972 to February, 1996. Six other students later joined the lawsuit.

The school has an endowment of about $100 million and serves about seventy students on the Alamogordo campus and about 300 others around the state. It has a staff of about 180 employees.

 

School for Blind Target of Federal Probe
(Taken from the March 14, 1997, Albuquerque Tribune)

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department has notified Governor Gary Johnson of a federal probe into rights violations of students at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped.

The February 26 letter said investigators will look for violations of federal constitutional and statutory rights of students who attend and live at the school.

Although the letter did not say what prompted the federal probe, it said investigators will look into whether students at the school were subject to physical and sexual abuse, had adequate medical care, and whether education and habitation at the school were appropriate.

The school has been under investigation by the state attorney general's office since June, 1996, when nine students filed suit against former superintendent Jerry Watkins and several current and former school employees, alleging they were physically and sexually abused.

The allegations covered a time period from 1972 to February, 1996.

 

Former Workers at Blind School Told to Testify, Depositions Ordered in Civil Abuse Case
by Fritz Thompson
(Taken from the May 22, 1997, Albuquerque Journal)

Two key figures in a civil suit alleging physical and sexual abuse at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped were told Wednesday they can't keep putting off questions about what went on at the school before they left.

State District Judge Eugenio Mathis ordered attorneys for former school Superintendent Jeriel Watkins and former coach and physical education instructor Jack Harmon to submit to depositions as soon as the plaintiffs' attorney can set up a time and place.

Watkins has said he can't offer testimony because he is suffering from a mental illness, and Harmon said he doesn't want to incriminate himself in a possible forthcoming criminal case.

Plaintiffs' attorney Bruce Pasternak said he foresees the depositions being taken sometime in July.

Mathis refused to extend protective orders that the two defendants have been using to avoid giving the depositions.

"We need to make some progress here," Mathis told lawyers in a hearing that lasted about twenty minutes.

Filed in May, 1996, the suit contains allegations from fifteen former students at the Alamogordo school that they were physically or sexually abused by fellow students or school staff members over a twenty-three-year period ending last year. The suit claims the school administration ignored some instances of abuse or created an environment in which the abuse was allowed to take place.

Watkins and Harmon, who each were employed at the school for about twenty-three years, are named as defendants.

Mark Jaffe, the attorney representing Harmon, asked Mathis to extend the protective order for his client for another six months. He said he was making the request because of investigations being conducted by the state attorney general, the Otero County District Attorney, and the U.S. Justice Department.

"If we hold off and allow the investigations to progress, it won't impede the case," Jaffe said. "Some of the claims (by the plaintiffs) are exaggerated and sometimes untrue. ""

Later, when Mathis refused to extend Watkins' protective order, one of Watkins' attorneys, J. Duke Thornton, asked that the deposition of his client be videotaped and that Watkins be accompanied by a psychologist and a neuropsychologist "in case he needs medical attention. ""

Pasternak said he has been informed that Watkins "is not in therapy, but he is on medications."

"If Watkins is mentally ill, that explains everything about this case," Pasternak said. "It becomes pertinent to this case."

He did not speculate as to when Watkins, who retired July 1, [1996], might have become mentally ill.

Mathis ordered that Watkins make himself available for depositions before June 24. Pasternak expects a week or two delay.

Through his protective order, Watkins escaped previously scheduled deposition dates on January 15,
February 15, and May 15.

The case was filed in District Court in Albuquerque. But when both sides disqualified judges in the district, the state Supreme Court chief justice appointed Mathis of the 4th Judicial District in Las Vegas to hear the case.