ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gov. Susana Martinez has cleared the way for New Mexico lawmakers to consider a measure that supporters say would close a dangerous loophole by expanding obligations under state law to report child abuse or neglect.
The state’s top prosecutor and others are concerned that the current law calls for reporting suspected abuse by parents, guardians and custodians of children but leaves out abuse by other people such as school personnel. The proposed legislation would broaden reporting obligations to cover abuse and neglect by anyone.
Martinez, a Republican who served as a prosecutor before becoming governor, sent a message to lawmakers this week calling for the proposal to be added to the agenda.
Her office said Friday it was critical that the legislation “accomplishes the goal of keeping kids safe.”
Supporters, including New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and victim advocates, are hopeful the measure can make its way through both chambers and reach the governor’s desk before the 30-day legislative session wraps up in mid-February.
Balderas said the legislation has the potential to save lives and protect student rights. He pointed to the case of former teacher Gary Gregor, who is facing numerous charges of sexually abusing elementary school girls in northern New Mexico after concerns were first raised in other states.
“I don’t believe that the state can effectively fight crime if they cannot keep their public schools, their campuses safe,” Balderas told The Associated Press in an interview.
In 2009, the Espanola school district placed Gregor on leave. The following year, state education officials refused to renew his teaching license. New allegations involving multiple victims have since been leveled against the former teacher, who has yet to enter a plea.
Nallely Hernandez, who was a student of Gregor, is campaigning for the legislation. Had such a law been in place when she was in Gregor’s fourth-grade class, Hernandez said school officials would have been required to report to authorities the alleged abuse she and her classmates endured.
Now a college student, Hernandez said she’s no longer ashamed or embarrassed to talk about her experience and believes that speaking out can help protect others. She also has written the governor a letter, seeking to talk with Martinez about the issue.
“I didn’t want to be one of those people who just let it go, to just pass it down. I felt like there was something I could do about it and I could let people know how important it is,” she said of updating the law.
Aside from broadening the reporting requirement to include suspected abuse by any person, the measure also lists various types of abuse, from emotional, physical and sexual abuse to sexual exploitation.
Balderas said he fears there are more generations of students who have been placed at risk given the gaps in the law and what he calls systemic underreporting. He said local and state agencies and states themselves can do a better job of sharing information about offenders.
“We’re looking to partner with teachers and others to be the front line so we can have proper interventions,” he said.
To help with the reporting effort, a ruling issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court in 2015 clarified provisions of a state statute that calls for “every person” to report abuse or neglect, not just by those whose occupations are spelled out by law.