Passing the Trash

New Mexico stares down the menace of pedophiles in positions of power over kids

Nallely Hernandez knew right away.

There was something different about the way Gary Gregor ran his classroom, she says.

It was more than a decade ago. She was 9 years old, a fourth-grader at Española's Fairview Elementary. Gregor was 51.

She'd never had a teacher who elected a "council" to sit at the head of the class, specially selected by Gregor and then voted on by the students.

"There was a time we elected all boys," Hernandez says. "He wasn't having it. He wanted girls at the table."

She was one of Gregor's elected. The grooming, she says, began at once. There were gifts of candy and stuffed animals. He'd hug her, act more like a friend than a teacher. "He tried to get close. And he did," she says. Within weeks, she and other victims would later allege, Gregor would keep a girl at lunch, close his door, draw his blinds and take her into the closet to kiss him. He touched them too.

It wasn't right. Didn't feel right. She knew it. But she says Gregor told her, "He knew where my family lived and I was better off not saying anything to anybody. He was this huge man and I was just this little girl."

Other girls would wait outside the classroom to make sure whomever was inside came back out.

Finally, a small group of small girls got together and marched into the principal's office. They were embarrassed by what had happened, and unsure how to describe it. They agreed, Hernandez says, to say Gregor had been touching them privately on their legs—even though he had done much more.

What happened next seems to have come from a script about Gary Gregor's career as a teacher. It's reminiscent of priest sex-abuse scandals. It has cost the Española school district more than $7 million so far. And it's illustrative of the size of the problem New Mexico schools face if they can't stop predatory educators from moving from school to school, district to district, and state to state as they look for opportunities to abuse children.

It's called "passing the trash."

The terrifying problem for child advocates and anyone trying to root out pedophilia in schools is that teachers like Gregor have too often been the rule. Many educators who abuse children aren't caught the first time they do it.

On a recent Saturday morning in Albuquerque, Linda Paul, a former superintendent and educational leadership consultant, showed sobering statistics to a roomful of educators at the New Mexico School Boards Association annual convention: One in eight boys and one in five girls will be sexually assaulted by someone they know and trust by the time they are 18 years old.

There are more than 1 million convicted sex offenders in the country, Paul informed the room. Not all of them involve children, and only a small fraction of the adults who assault kids have had careers as educators, coaches, school staff or volunteers, but Sammy Quintana heard those numbers and began thinking of the more than 50,000 employees and volunteers who interact with the 300,000 students in schools covered by the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority.

"That's a lot of exposure, a lot of opportunities for people who are pedophiles to get into our schools. And obviously, that's the place you want to be if that's your problem. What better place to be than in schools?" Quintana tells SFR the week after the convention.

NMPSIA—one of those clunky, educational acronyms that actually gets pronounced by those who have to say it a lot ("NIMP-suh")—self-insures schools for property, liability and worker's compensation claims up to $1 million. It also pays $12 million dollars a year in premiums to a secondary insurer for coverage above that threshold.

As the agency's executive director, Quintana has a professional interest in fixing a problem that is personally disquieting to most everyone involved. He knows all about passing the trash.

"A pedophile goes to one school district and gets investigated for some type of an allegation of wrongful touching of a child or something like that," he explains. "And what that pedophile does is say, 'Look, I don't want to go through an investigation. I didn't do it, but I'm just leaving.' And they'll go somewhere else. So that investigation never gets completed and there's nothing at that school that indicates that this guy had an issue. And that person will go to another school. And every time they get close to getting caught, they'll say, 'Oh, I'm going to resign and leave.'"

That's exactly what happened with Gary Gregor.

Before he taught Nallely Hernandez at Fairview Elementary, Gregor taught at another school in the Española district. Before that, he taught in Santa Fe at Ortiz Middle School and Agua Fria Elementary, where there was a complaint before he left the district. He taught at a Native American reservation in Montana prior to Santa Fe, where there were also signs that something wasn't right. And in Utah, in 1994, about five years before he was hired in Santa Fe, police investigated Gregor after he kept two elementary school girls in his classroom for hours after school ended, watching movies. There was a second complaint that year, too. But not a conviction. When Gary Gregor arrived in teacher-strapped New Mexico, he clearly had issues. But he wasn't a criminal.

"One of the things we know about sexual predators is that they cast many lines out there. You've got shiny things on the end of a variety of lines," Paul tells SFR. "And as soon as there's some heat—as soon as there's another adult saying, 'Wait a minute. What's happening over there every Tuesday at noon?' or a parent goes, 'What did you just get from your teacher?'—as soon as there's an ounce of heat, the predator reels up that line and they move somewhere else. They're tremendously opportunistic."

That cycle is not novel. In 2007, New Mexico updated its state law to require districts and charter schools to report not just known felonies and misdemeanors, but to investigate allegations made about ethical misconduct by any licensed employee "who resigns, is being discharged or terminated or otherwise leaves employment after an allegation has been made." If there's wrongdoing found, it must be reported to the Public Education Department. If it's not, superintendents and charter school administrators could face licensure action of their own.

It's a significant change, and one that's well-intentioned, but there are holes.

For one, while it assigns responsibility for investigations and follow-up, it relies on someone closer to the students and the employee in question to make a report. There are guidelines, but each district figures out how best to spread the word about what kind of behavior should be questioned.

The law also only applies to licensed employees. So again, it's up to each district or charter school to properly address problematic behavior by custodians, volunteers and other adults who don't have to be licensed to be in the school each and every day.

"These predators find a way to meander into a system," says David Poms, the man who started the state's public school insurance authority. His agency, Poms and Associates, is the insurance brokerage and consultancy firm that is currently among those working on the problem in New Mexico. Bad actors, Poms says, are looking for cracks, vague policies and school districts that are too hard-up for teachers to do the kind of background research and investigations that are needed to catch them.

What happened next for Nallely Hernandez and her classmates after telling the principal about Gregor's touching was … nothing. In fact, in some ways, it was almost worse than being ignored.

According to the lawsuit Hernandez filed, Principal Ruby Montoya told the girls she knew Gregor well and he wouldn't do such a thing. A few days later, she came to class and warned the fourth-graders that they shouldn't make false accusations. Mr. Gregor was there, the complaint says, and he looked angry.

What was a 9-year-old girl to do? Where else to go?

The principal didn't investigate and didn't call police.

Hernandez answered nothing with silence of her own. But Gregor's behavior got worse, she says: He kept touching her, called her on her mother's cell phone, bought Hernandez her own cell phone (which he later took away) and even asked if she and her sisters could sleep over at his house, with his wife, in a room decorated especially for little girls.

It wasn't until the father of one of the other girls allegedly being abused by Gregor heard of what what had been happening—near the end of Nallely's fifth-grade year—that the police were called. But it was that parent, not the school or the district, that called them. The investigation didn't result in any prosecution.

Española Public Schools did not respond to SFR's requests for comment for this story.

When civil rights attorney Cammie Nichols filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hernandez in 2016, Gregor still hadn't been charged with with a crime. That's the reason, despite two settlements with Española schools in excess of $7 million and a third lawsuit pending, that all of Gary Gregor's behavior is still "alleged." He wasn't charged criminally until this year, when the Attorney General's Office stepped in on long-dormant investigations of allegations from 2003, 2006 and 2007. Appearing on an episode of ABC's Nightline in April, Attorney General Hector Balderas promised Gregor would be prosecuted at last. Later that month, a grand jury handed up an indictment on the first charges.

On the Wednesday before Christmas, state District Court Judge T Glenn Ellington arraigned the now 61-year-old on three counts of criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13. The charges stem from his time teaching in Santa Fe. It is the third criminal case filed by the AG against the former educator this year. The other two cases are for similar crimes in Española. He faces 17 felonies and, after decades spent in schools, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. Such prosecution is rare.

There is no government database for teachers who have been reprimanded for inappropriate behavior. Most states, including New Mexico, mandate a criminal background check before teachers can be licensed. That, of course, relies on criminal convictions.

To help fill a dangerous gap, the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification created what's called the Clearinghouse. Phil Rogers, the executive director for the group, says the database gathers disciplinary action against teachers, administrators, school nurses and anyone else who needs to be licensed to be in a school.

"After that action is final and the results are made public, it's entered into the Clearinghouse. Basically, it creates an alert," he tells SFR.

The system relies on reports and investigations at the district level, which are then reported to state education departments and finally uploaded to the Clearinghouse. It's updated monthly, and last summer, the group made the database available to school districts.

"It became clear there was a growing problem," Rogers says. Appearing on the database shouldn't necessarily be an automatic disqualifier, he points out, "but it gives information, and then the district can find out more about why a potential teacher shows up."

Quintana, the insurance authority head, says his agency is putting together a task force to see if the state can better identify how it can detect and prevent sexual abuse by educators. "We're in the process of trying to find who at [the Public Education Department] could help us," he says. "There's been a lot of turnover there. That's going to be a key player, because that's where all the licensure comes in."

The state refused to acknowledge SFR's requests for comment on this story.

In the absence of state guidelines, Linda Paul has been working with a handful of people at Poms and Associates to develop a model professional boundaries policy. It's the core of the presentation she made to the New Mexico School Boards Association last month.

Such a policy, Paul says, may seem remedial—why do you need to tell professionals not to put kids in their lap or not to close doors when they're alone with a child?—but it also acts as a signpost for other teachers, volunteers, staff and administrators.

David Poms explains such a policy can be tremendously helpful if his staff can convince districts that adopting and sticking with it can save them money and, more importantly, prevent abuse: "It's the tendency to protect your own that's going to take some doing. Because it's just human nature to do that, but it's crazy human nature [when safety is at stake]."

A boundaries policy can act as a fence, Paul tells SFR. She's dug into this for a long time, and found only Carlsbad had something approaching such a policy. She's certain it will have an impact, though, and says Albuquerque Public Schools is going to adopt one soon.

"The policy says if you come inside [the fence], here's what we want you to do and here's what we want you not to do. Part of the goodness of public education is the relationships between healthy adults and children. … We don't want the goodness to go away, we want to prevent the creeps. We want the badness to go away."

Teaching certificates are considered a property right, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia says, carving out a few minutes in a packed holiday schedule to sit down for a brief interview. As such, the former education secretary under Gov. Bill Richardson explains, taking one away requires due process. That means an investigation, a hearing and potentially an appeal.

In the not-too-distant past, the investigation and resultant follow-up was often the same timeframe during which problem teachers would make their escape. That's how Gary Gregor was able to leave Santa Fe with a neutral recommendation instead of a black mark that could have possibly kept him from teaching elsewhere. Garcia says the 2007 change to the law made it "very clear that you have to investigate, and if you find something, [you have to] report it."

"These little quiet deals in the middle of the night? They have to stop," Garcia says.

While she wasn't familiar with Paul's boundary policy, she's supportive of the concept not only because it could catch or prevent abuse early on, but it could give teachers the protection of fair guidelines and clear expectations for their interactions with students.

The National Education Association's New Mexico chapter is at least conceptually open to the idea as well, union president Betty Patterson tells SFR. "Students are at the center of everything we do," she says in a statement. "This means ensuring every person at the front of every classroom and throughout the schools is qualified, caring and committed. We certainly support a strong statutory and regulatory environment that supports these values."

Back at Poms and Associates, Steve Meilleur has mined a 40-year human resources career to make sure districts around the state have access to support when they have to investigate abuse allegations. It's a vital part of eliminating predatory behavior in schools because so much of what's reportable to the state and to the NASDTEC Clearinghouse relies on a quality investigation.

It also can give school districts the confidence to give a more thorough answer when another school calls for a reference check. "A lot of people default to name, rank and serial number,  which isn't necessarily appropriate," Meilleur says. "But they do it out of a fear of defamation."

A sharp investigation is especially important, David Poms says, because the state has been short on licensure investigators for some time. The more professionally a district can handle its own investigations, the less likely they are to get lost at the state level.

It's hard to gauge the cost of the misguided belief that the problem has already been solved. It seems there's a decent chance settlements from Gary Gregor's time in Española will top $10 million. There are other quantifiable measures, such as the increase in insurance premiums for the Public School Insurance Authority or the cost of hiring and training new teachers or coaches as predatory ones move on.

There are also costs that are much harder to measure.

Nallely Hernandez says she's still learning to trust adults beyond her parents. For a long time, she'd punch or kick boys who tried to touch her in the school hallway—her body is hers, not anyone else's. But she speaks with a quiet strength that belies the spirit underneath.

She's a sophomore at UNM now, six months pregnant and still waiting tables at an Albuquerque restaurant despite a seven-figure court settlement. That money is in a trust. She's a double-major in biochemistry and Spanish who wants to become a surgeon. She's also minoring in psychology and, in this interview and those she's given in the past, she says that she'd like to speak with children about what happened to her and how to protect themselves.

It's hard to imagine someone who would handle being sexually assaulted by her fourth-grade teacher better than Hernandez, but she's an outlier. Many other girls don't want to talk about what they say Gary Gregor did to them. Nallely Hernandez was able to make a different choice. Her lawsuit named her only as Jane Doe. Eventually, she decided putting her face to her story was important.

"[With anonymity] it'll be told, but not through me. And I lived it," she says. "It wouldn't be the same to say 'Jane Doe' when here I am. And I want to be able to make that difference."

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