Chanel Dority was indignant, but not terribly surprised when a boy called her young son the N-word in a Santa Fe public school earlier this year. Her son phoned his dad, who reported it to Dority.
The shock came later, when she learned that school officials had called the family of the boy who hurled the racist taunt, but not her.
The school assigned the two boys to a “healing circle,” part of its restorative justice approach to racism, but no discipline was meted out, Dority says.
Then, it happened again.
The day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, several of her son’s peers again called him the N-word during a heated exchange. Dority went back to the administration to get answers.
The incidents matched a pattern a handful of Black Santa Fe mothers described for SFR over the course of several conversations: School leaders met with Dority and the parents of the other children, hoping to smooth things over, but officials did not connect the painful experiences as part of a larger problem in the schools. Ultimately, their responses read as reactionary, instead of preventative.
“It’s a lot to expect Black parents who have full-time jobs, careers, children, family members, things going on in their lives to carry this issue and be the advocates and go above and beyond to get the school caught up on the proper way to handle racism,” says Dority. “Where is the care for Black students?”
The mothers agreed to be interviewed and identified on the record, but asked that SFR not identify their children or provide specifics about the incidents to school officials. SFR agreed to those conditions to prevent fresh trauma for the kids.
These mothers are left with the distinct impression that, when it comes to their children being targeted by individual acts of racism, they are largely invisible in officials’ eyes. SFR reviewed correspondence between the mothers and school officials that supports that intuition: Officials respond to the shocking incidents with reactive, rather than proactive, ideas for how to move forward.
Santa Fe Public Schools leaders tell SFR that Black parents need to do more to bring racist incidents to officials’ attention.
But when parents do just that, schools ask them to take an active role in addressing the problem. District officials concede they can do more.
The extent to which anti-Black racism has crept into schools in Santa Fe and beyond is tough to measure. While SFPS collects incident reports submitted by students and parents, the transitions between remote and in-person learning has made tracking the breadth of anti-Black racism in schools difficult—though district leaders don’t deny there is a problem.
Dority and other Black mothers who spoke with SFR don’t need data to demonstrate the scope of the problem. “Every Black mom I’ve spoken with in New Mexico has experienced racism in public schools,” she says.
However, through a review of statewide data, SFR has identified a way in which Black students are more visible than when they are on the receiving end of racism—the disciplinary process. Black kids are punished in schools at a rate that’s disproportionate to their total population as compared to their white peers.
Last year, legislators passed a law to create equity for Black children in the education system. And just three months ago, officials set up a reporting hotline for racist incidents—calls have begun to trickle in.
In Santa Fe, officials point to their anti-racism training and restorative justice programs that work toward addressing the historical injustices Black people have faced.
“You don’t have to see Black people”
Erasing Black New Mexicans from history has been intentional, says Rob Martinez, the state historian. He points to the tricultural myth that has long dominated popular New Mexico history, which, according to Martinez, is just that, a myth.
“It’s just a way of categorizing people in a very simple way that’s easy to digest,” he tells SFR. The narrative refers to a false picture of New Mexico history that’s defined solely by the deeds of Anglo, Hispanic and Native people.
“When you do that, you don’t have to see Chinese people,” Martinez says. “You don’t have to see Black people.”
That erasure has led to a lack of awareness of prominent Black figures who have defined New Mexico history since long before statehood, Martinez says. For example, Black Santa Fean Sebastian Rodríguez accompanied Don Diego de Vargas, serving as a drummer and town crier. His descendants later founded the town of Las Trampas.
Clara Belle Williams, the first Black graduate of what is now New Mexico State University, weathered racist efforts to deny her an education and became a lifelong teacher in Las Cruces.
Williams’ struggles in the 1930s didn’t mark the end of anti-Black racism in New Mexico schools.
The six mothers who spoke with SFR say it’s continued in numerous ways, creating an unsafe environment and ultimately standing in the way of a proper education.
“They’re trying to erase us here”
Tintawi Kaigziabiher was preparing for her day on a recent morning while helping her young child with a warm-up exercise for a remote lesson. The prompt asked her child to name the chores they do at home, and the accompanying image showed what she recognized as Black children in a subservient manner.
Kaigziabiher, a former SFR contributor, sent a letter to the school, calling them out for using racist imagery. The school responded with a request: Help us fix the issue. They asked Kaigziabiher to join their equity council, a group that meets quarterly to discuss inclusivity in the school.
She felt the offer was sincere, but saw it as another example of school leaders dropping potential solutions on her shoulders.
As with Dority, it happened again when a group of students threatened her child—complete with racial slurs—on the bus one day.
Kaigziabiher tells SFR she moved her child out of the school because of the ongoing racism.
Nicole Morris knows what it feels like to be a Black mother with a kid in New Mexico schools, too. When her son left the state for college, he told Morris that he’d “escaped” New Mexico.
“He never felt safe from age 10 to 18, he never felt seen, he never felt respected, not by one teacher,” Morris tells SFR. “And he also went to multiple schools because we were constantly searching for the magical school that would respect him.”
It wore on Morris’ son. She says his life was “constantly in danger due to racial stereotyping and white violence” over his style of dress and mannerisms. She regularly visited his schools to monitor racist incidents and bring them to administrators’ attention.
“They treat each incident as a one-off: ‘That teacher was just overwhelmed, that child is distressed, that person was upset,’ instead of connecting the dots and saying this is a cultural situation that is accepted,” says Morris, spotlighting what the mothers who spoke with SFR call stark evidence of Black invisibility.
Sunshine Muse, another Santa Fe mother, tried moving her children into private school only to find it worse than the public schools in Santa Fe.
“And it doesn’t seem to matter what part of New Mexico, what schools,” Muse says, adding that her child felt safest in schools where Black parents had paved a path for combating racism.
“This isn’t about hurt feelings or racial insensitivity, it’s violence,” says Muse, the executive director of Black Health New Mexico, a nonprofit working to improve health outcomes in the state.
Black maternal health, one of Muse’s focus areas, was recognized nationally last week for the second year after President Joe Biden proclaimed a week in April to address glaring inequities in pregnancy and childbirth outcomes in the United States.
Muse, Kaigziabiher, Morris and Dority say their children aren’t safe unless they’re seen—and they’re not.
“They’re trying to erase us here,” says Kaigziabiher.
Several of the mothers tell SFR they feel like Santa Fe school leaders are trying to create safer places for learning, but there’s a long way to go.
“You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe”
On a recent Monday morning, Mary Louise Romero sits in a circle with a dozen or so 8th grade boys at Aspen Community School. They pass around Romero’s heart-shaped, silver talking stick, sharing the sorts of feelings young men typically avoid.
The activity lasts about 90 minutes. It most closely resembled musical chairs, but with more vulnerability.
Romero leads a range of restorative justice practices like this one for SFPS, based on referrals she and her team receive about past incidents or escalating situations.
She’s seen anti-Black racism across the district and works to educate perpetrators by asking students and families to research the history of the N-word.
“We are also students,” says Romero, who’s spent decades working with vulnerable youths in New Mexico. She notes her own limited personal experience. “We’re learning from our students and we have to be willing, as adults, to learn from our students.”
Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez says administrators and district leaders are participating in anti-racism training, mandated by a recently-passed state law. Teachers are on deck to receive the training next.
The training, Chavez explains, doesn’t specifically address anti-Black discrimination. “All racism is being covered and it’s not specific to one group, and I think we have to acknowledge that it’s not tolerated.”
But Muse says it is tolerated. She says specific anti-racist training is needed, particularly for Black people given that no other population in the United States was uniformly designated as property.
“We cannot escape the invisibility in our Blackness and the license that gives people to abuse us,” says Muse.
Another mother, Erica Davis, agrees, saying historical oppression against Black people continues in the US, and she’s seen it in the racism her children have experienced in New Mexico schools.
“Anti-blackness is a specific, special hell,” she tells SFR.
Chavez points to two school board policies as evidence of the district’s commitment to keeping all students safe: one addressing discrimination and harassment based on race, passed in 2002, and another that addresses bullying and hazing, adopted 17 years later.
School administrators are responsible for dealing with specific instances of racism, Chavez says.
The schools’ responses to the incidents Black mothers shared with SFR ranged from detention to conversation with administrators.
Given SFR’s agreement to protect the students’ anonymity, it’s difficult to know the exact consequences doled out to the perpetrators, but in one case the school filed a police report in response to the racist incident.
Another common response, which Chavez notes, is the use of restorative justice. A district coordinator, like Romero, guides those efforts.
“Our goal is to create a safe space for every student, and if you have conflict then you’re not feeling like you can be safe,” says Romero. “You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe.”
Combating anti-Black racism, Chavez says, is an area in which the district could improve. “We always are evaluating and re-evaluating anything that we offer.”
“It’s hard to understand what they’re going through because it’s not brought to the attention that’s needed to find the answers,” Chavez adds. “But we need that partnership—just meet us halfway.”
Morris says she and her fellow Black mothers have been doing just that.
“My experience in the Santa Fe public school system has been constant advocacy, constant disbelief and needing to point things out,” she says.
Romero agrees that the remedy is a heavy lift. She says the issue demands resources beyond restorative justice facilitators. “It’s about every single adult creating that culture where that’s not going to be accepted.”
The district has created curricula focused on societal awareness, students’ mental health and peer support to push back against myriad forms of racism and oppression, says Jenn Jevertson, SFPS’s prevention coordinator.
“There’s no one solution to try to unpack and dissect the oppression that exists in our society,” Jevertson says. “But the more that we can chip away at it…then that is one of the ways that we can start making our schools and our entire society right—not just the school—less racist, less sexist, less homophobic, less transphobic.”
Black parents say other adults in the district need to pull their own weight.
“All of these things are useful but none of them are the cure,” Muse tells SFR. “The cure is…that at every level, where an adult is present throughout the school systems of New Mexico, those adults are prepared not to be bystanders and they are proven anti-racists.”
“How many issues are present in the schools”
April marks one year since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Black Education Act. It was meant as a legislative companion to the Indian Education Act and the Hispanic Education Act to address specific learning needs and educational barriers for students in those racial and ethnic groups.
But the law for Black student equity came years after the other two statutes, which were passed in 2003 and 2010, respectively. Black parents who spoke with SFR say the need for the third law spotlights ongoing racism in the education system.
Echoing that sentiment, Amy Whitfield, executive director of the state’s Office of African American Affairs, says the BEA’s existence demonstrates the problem.
She points to racism’s insidious impact in New Mexico schools.
“When we’re talking about our children not being cared for in ways they need to be cared for,” Whitfield says, “what we’re talking about is putting them into places of injustice. We’re putting them into places of…poverty.”
With the BEA came funding for a hotline “to report racially charged incidents or racialized aggression.”
The Anti-Racism Anti-Oppression Hotline went live on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the first two months of the hotline’s operation, parents, teachers, students and others made 19 calls—of those, 13 were reported as “racial incidents.”
The hotline’s manager, Devon Williams, says the calls serve as an indicator, “especially when it comes to students of color, [of] how many issues are present in the schools.”
Williams tells SFR that the hotline empowers families and students and gives them a place to be heard.
Nicole Bedford, Black Education Act liaison, says about 90% of districts have completed the law’s other requirements, which include the creation of anti-racism policies and anti-racism training for all school staff. A major purpose of the hotline, Bedford explains, is to help collect information and provide resources to families.
“With our hotline, we’re really trying to bridge the gaps between our families and our students and our communities with our schools,” Bedford tells SFR. She adds that the hotline is crucial because it provides parents a clear method to communicate complaints, “because so many people and so many parents or students don’t know, when they do have an incident happen, they don’t know where to go to.”
Donyelle Miller, a parent who lives just outside Santa Fe, says the weight of racism on Black children impacts their health and safety. “The reason we care so much as parents is because we understand the depths and the damage that this can do if we don’t do something about it.”
While families finally have a method of drawing attention to incidents that might have gone unnoticed, Black students have been the focus of scrutiny in another aspect of schooling: discipline.
Studies have found that administrators and police officers placed in schools over-discipline Black students compared to their peers. Reports also demonstrate that Black youths face harsher responses to their infractions.
New Mexico appears to follow the norm, according to discipline data SFR obtained from the state Public Education Department through a records request. Of the 103,659 infractions reported to PED by districts and charter schools over the last five school years, 3.7% are attributed to Black students.
While student demographics shift, the percentage of Black students in the state has hovered around 2%.
PED performs some analysis on discipline data by race, says Gregory Frostad, the department’s director of the Safe and Healthy Schools Bureau. And to date, officials have not identified overrepresentation for any racial or ethnic groups.
But the analysis is only for 17% of the student population—special education students—a requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, PED officials say.
That leaves 83% of students for whom PED conducts no searches for discipline disparities—a possible explanation for the overrepresentation SFR found in the department’s data.
“If any minority group is overrepresented in the number of discipline infractions, relative to their population size, the PED would be concerned,” Frostad says in response to SFR’s analysis of the data.
He notes that the department is hiring someone to look more deeply at discipline across the state and “how to reduce exclusionary practices such as suspension and expulsion.”
Miller says school leaders and administrators need to take on more of the weight in the fight against racism, because Black children deserve more than survival.
“It’s about their birthright to thrive on this planet,” she says. “Really overall the climate that my kids have to navigate is racist. I have yet to find a space where they feel like they can be themselves and be who they are, freely without a fear of violence, whether that is mental or physical. That space has not existed for them yet. I am still looking.”
Editor’s note: An early version of this story was updated to clarify a statement from Morris about her son’s style of dress.