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Searchligt New Mexico Magazine

© 2019 Searchlight New Mexico.  |  All rights reserved. For republishing terms, see Guidelines. 

Images by Don Usner

INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

If students in Socorro are going to succeed, they need help in and out of the classroom.

SOCORRO – Carlos slides through the windowless halls of Socorro High School with the grace of a jaguar, like he owns these disinfected floors, these metal lockers, this 7-foot sculpture of a Native American “Warrior” mascot in its glass case. Tight fade haircut. Zirconia studs glinting in his lobes. Calls himself a “New Mexico pretty boy” on his otherwise private Instagram profile. His dark eyes know more than he’ll say, but there is one thing 17-year-old Carlos doesn’t know yet: He will be expelled today, for cursing at a teacher. Of the 136 seniors who entered Socorro High in 2015, only 86 are left. 


When Carlos goes, 85. 


And not one of them has it easy.  


Not Pilar, who wakes up in a foster home, to change and feed her 2-year-old son, Luca, who on this winter day is running a fever and coughing. Pilar just hopes her ex-boyfriend, who is 27 and against whom she has a protective order, doesn’t show up today. 


Not Maceo, who has a hard time dressing himself thanks to a mangled right hand. He broke it three different times, punching the school walls to persuade the bullies to stop beating him.


Certainly not Brent, who started the day chopping wood to feed into the stove that heats the house where he tries his best to take care of his younger half-brothers, protecting them from their meth-addicted mother and explosive stepfather.


The lives of these students — whose names have been changed here, to protect their privacy — are, if anything, the norm, according to principal Mario Zuniga. He says that every one of the 437 students at Socorro High has suffered some form of abuse or neglect.

Mario Zuniga, principal of Socorro High, in the hallway between classes. Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico.

Their trauma announces itself, he says, in the school’s dropout rate — 20 percentage points higher than the state average — as well as its abysmal test scores, and the high level of teacher burnout.


Ask Zuniga what percentage of his students face some kind of abuse and he sighs. “All of them. I’ve worked in a lot of schools, but I’ve never worked anywhere like this.” 

Learning the hard way


Zuniga, a former football coach turned teacher turned administrator, landed in Socorro three years ago, after being driven out of his job as principal of Valencia High School in Los Lunas. The year was 2010, and, as he freely acknowledges, he was fleeing numerous scandals — chief among them, an accusation of verbal and sexual harassment by his assistant principal. 


Zuniga denied the allegations and no further action was taken. In 2011, he resigned his job and moved to the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where for the next five years he supported himself as Athletics, Cafeteria and Transportation Manager for Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools. 


While there, he steeped himself in mindfulness training, meditating in Buddhist retreats, reading books on emotional intelligence and “retooling my brain.” 


“You go to pure darkness,” he says. “I’ve been there, I know what it’s like. That’s why I have this empathy. These kids went through 10 times more than I’ve gone through, and no one knows about it.”


Today, he credits those years in the mountains for saving his life — as well as helping prepare him for the traumas of Socorro High. Last year, when he first heard the term “ACEs,” something clicked into place. 
 

A causal relationship has long been assumed between trauma and behavioral problems. The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of 1998, conducted jointly by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spelled out the connection. It found that chronic childhood stress causes concrete biological changes to the brain and body that make things like paying attention, learning, following instructions and trusting people much more difficult.


Zuniga points to an education movement that’s gaining momentum across the country. Known as trauma-informed schools, it focuses on helping troubled children thrive by encouraging stable, nurturing relationships and replacing traditional punishment with a climate of kindness, respect and support.

“There’s just no system in place for that kind of change,” Zuniga laments. “There’s only 2 million people in the state, it shouldn’t be that hard. We have to build some leadership capacity to make change. Someone’s got to do it.”
 

Earlier this year, state Sen. William P. Soules (D-Doña Ana County) and Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Socorro) tried to get $5 million from the Legislature to implement trauma-informed changes to schools in Socorro, Doña Ana and Rio Arriba Counties.

Graphic by Christian Marquez / Searchlight New Mexico.

The bill died in committee, but Soules was able to drum up $1 million in seed money by convincing other senators to kick in some of the $400,000 each of them received in discretionary funds thanks to a budget surplus.

A childhood spent in the fight-flight-or-freeze mode engendered by ACEs changes a person’s epigenetics, essentially altering the on-off switches in DNA. As a result, traumatized people become susceptible not just to psychological difficulties, but to everything from cancer and stroke to heart disease. 


And for kids who — like Carlos, Pilar, Maceo and Brent — suffer with extreme levels of trauma, suicide attempts are 6,000 times more likely later in life, according to the Kaiser-CDC study.


A national report on ACEs released in 2018 by Child Trends, a national nonprofit research institute, ranked New Mexico No. 1 in the nation for per capita childhood trauma, tied with Arizona. And though trauma occurs in families at every income level, the added stressors of poverty, racism and addiction — so commonplace in Socorro and much of the rest of New Mexico — just make things worse.


On the school level, expulsion and suspension exacerbate an already bad situation. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a joint statement from 30 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Federation of Teachers, which condemned the use of expulsion and suspension. According to the statement, the practice often leads to further trauma, higher dropout rates and increased behavioral problems.

A place to look for help


Driving 75 mph along Interstate 25 between El Paso and Albuquerque, you’ll zip through Socorro in two, maybe three, long blinks. Stop for any length of time and you’ll find an amplified version of the problems affecting poor communities across the state — and, increasingly, across the nation as income inequality grows and services to the neediest decline. 


More than 400 years ago, the place was called Teypana. When the Spanish conquistadors came staggering out of the desert in 1598, dying of hunger and thirst, the Piro Pueblo Indians gave them food, water and a guide to help them find Santa Fe. The Spaniards renamed the settlement Socorro, for the help they received here.


Most of Socorro crouches in the eight miles between the Rio Grande and the Socorro mountains to the east. The river is a brown trickle most of the year. Nothing but a stubble of stunted junipers dots the skinned pink knees of Socorro Peak. Manganese, copper and lead mines have left holes in the mountain that mimic the bullet holes in the stop sign at the edge of town. 


Now and then, you might feel a rumble beneath your feet as the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology tests high explosives, bombs and other munitions a few miles to the west.

It’s dry here. There’s no more water than there is hope, which is to say you can find it — but you’re going to have to dig deep.

Wal-Mart is among the top blue-collar employers in Socorro these days, but rumor at the food bank has it they’re having a hard time finding employees. A morning manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed this with a “what do you expect” shrug. “Wal-Mart tests for drugs,” he says. “And everyone around here fails.” 

At a recent Socorro School Board meeting, board member J.C. Trujillo, who works a day job as Chief Financial Officer at Positive Outcomes, Socorro County’s only early-childhood intervention center, announced some startling data. He said that 72 percent of babies born in Socorro County in 2017 were either exposed during pregnancy or tested positive at birth to heroin, other opioids or a prescription drug.
 

Graphic by Christian Marquez / Searchlight New Mexico.

The New Mexico Department of Health confirms that neonatal abstinence syndrome, the “group of symptoms that occur in newborns exposed to addictive substances while in utero,” has increased by an astonishing 324 percent since 2008.

These are the babies born dependent on drugs, who show active withdrawal symptoms. Rio Arriba County has the highest rate of NAS, with 64 of every 1000 live births; Socorro County comes in second, with 50 in 1,000.

At Sarracino Middle School, the only feeder school for Socorro High, there are multiple students with lifelong brain damage from being exposed to addictive substances in utero, according to principal David Marquez — including “one girl who has seizures all day long.”


A former Socorro County Sheriff’s Deputy, Marquez switched to a career in education, he says, “because I realized all the problems I was seeing in our area were due to trauma, and unless we reached these kids young, with help instead of punishment, it would never change.” 
 

Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico.

Push comes to shove


As Zuniga delivers the day’s announcements over the intercom, a couple of students wander into the office to chat with Heather Kathrein, the registrar and attendance secretary. She keeps a supply of snacks and pencils in her desk, all purchased with her own modest salary. 


The kids seek her out and Kathrein thinks it’s because she understands them, because she herself scores 8 out of 10 on the ACEs test. Both her parents dealt with mental illness; both ultimately killed themselves — dad with a bullet, mom by “drinking 32 ounces of antifreeze.”


As the announcements end, Pilar comes in, carrying Luca. The toddler is too sick to remain in the childcare room, and so his 16-year-old mother must also leave school. She calls her foster mom, but the woman cannot stop what she’s doing to come get her. Kathrein comforts the baby, who sits on the floor and watches his mother slam the phone down and curse loudly. The baby bursts into tears. 


It is then that Carlos saunters in, called to the office from class, and plops down in a chair in the vice principal’s office. He’s someone who, according to Zuniga, has been in and out of the juvenile justice system a few times already. His dad has been in and out of prison his whole life. His mom neglected and abused him so badly that he was placed in foster care. 


And Carlos is here now because he cursed out a teacher. 


Staci March, the school’s dean of students, says it’s the final straw. The school has given him “a hundred” chances. Maybe more than a hundred. 


“You’re expelled,” she tells him. 


Though Carlos begs to be allowed to finish out the year; though he bolts from the office and tries to run back to class, though he screams “I trusted you people!” at Zuniga and March in a voice choked with tears, the administrators appear unmoved. “Take it like a man, Carlos,” says March. 


“I’m not a man! I’m a boy!” Carlos cries.


“Don’t back-talk me,” she replies. 


“Y’all just want me to end up in jail!” he wails as he’s dragged out of school on the gun-side of an armed police officer. “Maybe I’ll get a real education there!” 


 “Who knows what’ll happen to him now,” Zuniga says when asked about this exchange later in the day. “I kind of feel sorry for the kid. But he’s got to learn there are consequences to his actions.” 


As this drama unfolds, Pilar packs Luca into his stroller and begins the 35-minute walk to her foster home through the windy chill of this early spring day. 


All this, and it’s not even noon yet.