by Jahlysa Azaret
In 2019, the year-long Criminalizing Disability project investigated special education in New Mexico. One of the four most common experiences parents described was the restraint and seclusion of disabled students within the Albuquerque School District. Ed Williams, a staff writer at Searchlight New Mexico, led the investigation into this mistreatment of students. Williams engaged with the students’ parents in order to understand the situation the students faced.
Project Goals: The ultimate goal of the project was to understand the mistreatment of disabled students attending the Albuquerque Public School District. Williams wanted to highlight the issue of restraint and seclusion in the Albuquerque Public School District and how often it occurred.
Tools & Technology: Through a grant provided by the Community Listening Engagement Fund (CLEF), Searchlight New Mexico used Groundsource to invite specific community members to participate in an electronic survey. After participants completed a survey, Williams followed-up through one-on-one meetings, text messaging, and calls.
Impact: As of February 2020, the New Mexico Legislature was reviewing bills to address the issue of restraint and seclusion. Although the bills have yet to be passed, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order for an accountability system for restraint and seclusion.
Organization Background: Founded in January 2018, Searchlight New Mexico is a non-partisan non-profit that creates investigative reports and stories based on the community members within New Mexico. Searchlight New Mexico is funded by independent foundations and grants.
Project Resources: With limited staff in the newsroom, Williams led the research and follow-up on the Criminalizing Disability project. In understanding the role of the criminal justice system with disabled students, Williams enlisted the help of Ike Swetlitz, a fellow staff writer of Searchlight New Mexico, who specializes on stories involving criminal justice. All trips made in traveling to Albuquerque were covered by Searchlight New Mexico.
Here’s How it Happened
Assigned to report on education, Williams searched for a way to encapsulate a story that the community wanted told. Through research, Williams discovered that there was an apparent case of mistreatment toward disabled students. Williams found that it would take further investigating to discover the exact issues facing the community.
Here’s What Worked
1. Creating Effective Modes of Communication
After sending electronic surveys through text messaging to interested parents of the Albuquerque School District, Williams found that this opened opportunities in discovering the issues of restraint and seclusion. Groundsource made the process to communicate with the community easier by providing a method that reached multiple interested parties at once. Through the survey, parents were able to provide information that Williams needed in order to conduct the investigation on the Albuquerque School District on the mishandlings on restraint and seclusion on disabled students.
2. Finding Access
As school records are not public access documents, Williams had difficulty in receiving these files that showed proof of restraint. Reaching out to the parents of students of the Albuquerque School District was crucial in receiving the needed documentation of restraint. Through school records provided to the parents, Williams received proof of restraint. When parents requested full documentation of incidents of restraint from the school district, the requests were illegally denied. Parents conducted due process hearings and court filings in order to fully release the documents the school did not want to share.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Communication or Follow-Up Does Not Equal an Individual Story
Although Williams made clear that the report would place focus on stories that had a focus on actions progressing within a certain time frame, there was still some misunderstanding. Some parents were under the assumption that their story would be told since they were reached out to. Being clearer with these parents initially would have helped in some parts of engagement.
2. Increasing the Responses Made to the Community
The high volume in response to the community reacting to the invitation to discuss issues within the school district were high. In meeting the research requirements, Williams could not get to every single community members’ issues.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Consider Having a Larger Team: When it came to research and follow-up, having a larger team would have helped in processing responses. Some stories or leads may have been lost since there was not a large enough team to handle responses.
- Always Maintain Contact with the Community: Engaging with the community provided a basis of the story behind the investigation as well as unearthing many resources. Maintaining constant contact with community members made it easier to overcome obstacles of access to keep focus on the story.