New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Council launches special-education ombud office

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Dec. 5—When Valentin Anaya noticed his son was musically inclined, he enrolled the high schooler in a music class at Socorro High, only to find the boy had been marked absent nearly 40 times halfway through the first semester.

Valentin "Gogo" Anaya, a junior, is autistic, and his father said he hadn't been responding verbally during roll call, so teachers weren't marking him as present.

"It's been very challenging getting him any kind of proper services," the elder Anaya said in a recent interview. "In Socorro, even though we're only 75 miles away from Albuquerque, it's like Siberia because we don't have the kind of resources the city has in terms of personnel or training-wise."

Parents hope complications like these in New Mexico's public school classrooms will become less frequent with the opening of the Office of the Special Education Ombud.

The New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Council, a council on which two-thirds of the members experience developmental disabilities, launched the office Wednesday following the passage of a bill during the 2021 regular legislative session that carved out $250,000 in funding for hiring an ombudsperson. The role involves advocating and mediating between parents and schools over special education.

Michelle Tregembo, a former Volcano Vista High School assistant principal, was appointed ombudswoman by the council — on which Anaya sits as a family member — in June, and in an interview last week, she said she's already getting calls from families and educators.

Tregembo has been working in special education in New Mexico for 25 years. A key concern in the field is a lack of retention and hiring, worsened by the pandemic, she said.

Even students with disabilities who share a diagnosis "don't have the same behaviors or needs," which is why schools need more teachers and educational assistants trained in special education, she said.

An analysis from New Mexico State University in September showed nearly 300 special-education teaching positions statewide remained vacant at the start of the school year, making up 28 percent of all vacancies this fall. The state also saw 280 vacancies for special-education assistants.

"I'd like [parents] to know they have someone in their corner," Tregembo said. "We'll be doing systemic support as well."

Tregembo's role will involve attending individualized education plan meetings, investigating complaints, and helping to decipher state and federal laws surrounding special-education rights.

The new office also will collect data to better identify what areas of special education need revision in individual districts.

New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Council Director Alice Liu McCoy said demand for help with special-education issues likely will exceed the office's capacities and require more state funding in the future.

The council has high hopes of bringing on regional managers, hiring more staff and training volunteers so there's an advocate in every district, McCoy said.

"Absolutely one person is not enough," McCoy said. "We have lots of advocacy organizations that have been doing this work across the state in different areas. But no one's tried to be there statewide."

In 2018, the late Judge Sarah Singleton ruled the state was failing in its obligations to certain student groups to provide an adequate education, including students with disabilities.

In 2020, students with disabilities made up 15 percent of the state's graduating seniors, and they had the lowest graduation rate of any group at 66.4 percent, according to data from the Public Education Department.

McCoy said having a statewide mediator might be key to helping schools and the Public Education Department meet their responsibilities.

The elder Anaya said, "The thing I'm most excited about is there's going to be answers for parents who live in Magdalena, who live in the small communities around the state."

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