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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


Our Socorro High story evoked strong reactions. Searchlight responds.


Last week, we published a story from Socorro, called “First, aid.” The intent of the story was to examine the impact of childhood trauma on a single school, Socorro High, where adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, have cut a wide swath, affecting everything from test scores to graduation rates. Of course, as anywhere, there are plenty of children who thrive at Socorro. Still, many struggle.

Here and throughout New Mexico, childhood can be a harsh reality, all too often informed by grinding poverty and its associated ills. Our story sought to show the consequences of those ills - on the ground, on children’s lives. It was painful and raw and difficult to read. 


How could it not be? An ACE is defined as one of 10 kinds of trauma, including sexual, physical or psychological abuse; emotional or physical neglect; mental illness; drug or alcohol abuse; domestic violence; an absent parent or incarcerated household member. Scientists say that exposure to these assaults at a young age can alter brain development and have lifelong harmful impacts on health and the human condition, potentially for generations to come.


Searchlight New Mexico has written about ACEs numerous times since its launch in January 2018. It is an unavoidable subject for a news organization with a mission “to deliver high-impact investigative reporting to inspire New Mexicans to demand action on systemic problems that plague New Mexico.”


But though we have written about ACEs, we have never before gotten quite so close as to show its impact on real children. Until a reporter was given access to Socorro High School.


Our story was met with strong criticism from parents and community members who felt that it painted with too broad a brush. Certainly, it was not our intent to condemn or embarrass the community of Socorro. When Principal Mario Zuniga was quoted as saying that “every” student had suffered some form of abuse or neglect, we understood him to be exaggerating as a way of reaching for a higher truth – the fact that so many of his students face daunting challenges. 


He told us it was way past time for “business as usual.” He allowed Searchlight to come to Socorro High School because of what he saw as widespread indifference. 


Our story was a powerful one, and we believe it contributes to the conversation about ACEs in New Mexico. Even so, there are things we could and should have done differently. Our story would have benefited from additional context - comments from students who are thriving, from their parents who support them and cheer them on at their baseball games.


We also relied on an expert whose claims have been challenged. I’m speaking here of J.C. Trujillo, a school board member who last month publicly presented some alarming data at a Socorro school board meeting. He said that 72 percent of babies born in Socorro in 2017 were exposed prenatally to an opioid or other drug. It was an alarming statistic, which the reporter – who attended the meeting – quoted with good cause: Trujillo, after all, is not just a board member. He is second ranking officer of a prominent early childhood center in Socorro. 
As it happens, his statistic has been refuted by officials, who say it is overblown. 
 
Over the last week, we have asked ourselves some hard questions. We recognize that there may be a gap between how researchers and policy makers identify the vulnerability of kids and families – and how those “subjects” see themselves. After all, ACEs is neither a medical diagnosis nor a summary of one’s life. There will always be children who are resilient, who will succeed despite the hardships thrown their way.


That is why we are presenting video statements of three juniors at Socorro High School: Carmen Apodaca, Daven Moore and Mackenzy Romero. We are also publishing a response from Mario Zuniga who invited us to his school earlier this spring. We are glad that he did, and we are grateful for the ongoing dialogue that has resulted.

THE SOCORRO HIGH FUTURE: 2025

The Moral Imperative of Building the Resilient Mind

By Mario A. Zuniga

Introduction 
This is a response to the Searchlight New Mexico story that recently featured Socorro High School. I did not make the statement that, “every one of the 437 students at Socorro High has suffered some form of abuse or neglect.” What I did say is that we have a critical mass of students that have experienced some type of trauma at Socorro High. The intent of the article was to share how traumatic, adverse childhood experiences have a direct impact on student learning and graduation rates. Unfortunately, the reporter from Searchlight New Mexico missed the mark with regard to the several remarkable and resilient students who have graduated from Socorro High with bright futures on the horizon. As the lead learner of our school, I would like to share some of these resilient qualities which I have personally observed in our students over the last three academic years. 


Courage 
The classes of 2017 and 2018 had eight young men and women who immediately entered military service upon completion of their high school diplomas. When I would visit with these students, it was obvious that they were passionate about serving their country. Last fall, one student returned from his basic training and it was visible instantaneously that he had been transformed into a confident young man. We recently re-enrolled a student whose brother has just been deployed overseas. He was extremely proud of his older brother. From the Air Force Academy to Afghanistan, SHS students have demonstrated remarkable courage as demonstrated by their patriotism. 


Hope
In the classes of 2018 and 2019, I have had the opportunity to see DREAMers continue in the quest for a high quality education. Every day they attended SHS with the goal of taking the most rigorous coursework possible. They challenged themselves each day in spite of the current political climate with courage and integrity. These individuals have never lost their hope in the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 


Love
Just before the start of the 2016-17 school year, a senior class member passed away due to a tragic vehicle accident. I did not know the young man, but I did venture to the wake that was held at his home. A few other SHS faculty members also expressed their condolences to the family. I later learned that many students had also paid their respects to the family that evening. 

That semester we began a monthly student dialogue that focused on improving SHS. During our November conversation, the students asked if they could have a moment to recognize their fellow classmate who had passed away in August. I asked when his birthday was and they all simultaneously stated that it was on November 22. On that Tuesday, the senior class invited the late student’s family to a birthday remembrance for the young man in front of the flagpole. It was one of the most moving and loving events that I have ever witnessed. The students hugged the family and provided them with the love that is required for spiritual healing. 


Healing Our State 
Thanks to close partnerships with the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, several SHS students have the opportunity to graduate with dual-credit, many of whom leave Socorro with Calculus, Physics, and Mathematics credit, among other courses completed before entering highly competitive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) academic programs at various prestigious institutions. Those students have gone on to do incredible things to address political, economic, and resource management issues in New Mexico, inspiring the idea of returning home to serve one’s community in future graduates. 


This legacy of healing continues on as the class of 2017 has one student currently enrolled in the UNM-combined BA/MD program along with two more students from the class of 2019 that have recently been accepted for the upcoming fall semester. This ensures they will enter the University of New Mexico with a fully funded educational pathway towards their medical degree. These students have committed to serve as future doctors in our state due to their love of New Mexico. 


The SHS Future: 2025
It is evident that SHS has struggled with low school grades and dismal graduation rates over the last five years. When I begin my professional work at SHS in August of 2016, I proposed the question: Why are students dropping out of high school? I listened closely that fall semester and I heard the typical reasons such as the ‘students have no discipline’, ‘parents don’t care,’ among various other stories surrounding our school. 


During the summer of 2018, I was led to the scientific research of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (1). From my professional reflection, I believed that this is the blind spot of why students are dropping out of school, not only at SHS, but across the entire state. Most importantly, I believe this is a topic that our state has not fully researched or considered, especially in addressing why our state receives the New Mexico Kids Count annual ranking of 49th or 50th each year (2). 


Consequently, I believe if we do not create the systems to address this wicked problem, the learning outcomes and graduation rates of Socorro High School will continue to follow our past trends and produce dismal results in 2025. Yet, there is hope among our students as clearly demonstrated by the resilient minds that I previously discussed. 


The adaptive challenge we are presented with at SHS can be framed with the following question: How can we provide all students with a challenging learning environment that contributes to building a resilient mind? I believe the academic research of individuals such as Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Daniel Goleman, based in neurobiology and emotional intelligence, can equip our administrators, faculty, staff, and community members with the tools needed to effectively tackle this wicked problem. 


Tackling this problem will also require bold leadership. I am confident that this currently exists within our school with the current administrative team that has been assembled. In addition the district has conscientious leadership under the direction of Superintendent Ron Hendrix and Assistant Superintendent Denise Cannon. These are the leaders who have the creative imagination for this taking on this challenge and infusing love into the community. 
But they cannot do this work in isolation. This challenge requires a call to action to all for the sake of Socorro High School’s future. I am pleading with the all community members to work for the common good of our students and of Socorro. 


Thank you for listening to me and as I stated earlier, the recent story missed the mark on capturing the full spirit of our Resilient Warriors. I sincerely thank you for the privilege and honor to learn with you. 


Mario A. Zuniga

SHS Lead Learner 

Footnotes:

(1) Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18. (Center for Disease Prevention, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/aboutace.html)

(2) KIDS COUNT is a nationwide effort to track the status and well-being of children in each state and across the nation in four areas – economic
well-being, education, health, and family and community – measuring four indicators in each of these domains, for a total of 16 tracked
indicators. (NM Voices for Children, 2018. Retrieved from:
https://www.nmvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/NM-KidsCount-DataBook2018-web.pdf)