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Charter school calls police over rude comment


This story was updated Wednesday morning with a response from Richelle Peugh-Swafford.

Las Cruces police responded Monday evening to a complaint of disorderly conduct at the Alma d’Arte Charter High School. A lone officer walked into a public meeting of the governing board, where members of the public were waiting in the school’s auditorium while board members met in closed session.

A former student of the school had made angry remarks during the meeting’s public comment period, aiming a disrespectful remark at the school’s principal, Adam Amador, and using an expletive before leaving the podium. The board chair, Richelle Peugh-Swafford, asked him to leave the meeting, but he declined. The board then went into executive session to discuss Amador’s evaluation as well as possible litigation, according to the meeting agenda, as permitted under New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act.

The police officer appeared several minutes later and was met by members of the public who defended the young man’s presence and argued the police call was retribution for public criticism. Among those in attendance were two state legislators: Sen. Carrie Hamblen and Rep. Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces.

Two more officers arrived as the board members emerged from closed session and continued with the meeting. The police eventually departed without pursuing the investigation further or removing anyone.

In recent public meetings, community members including students, families and former staff members have focused criticism on the governing board as well as Amador, the school’s new principal, and Monday’s meeting continued the trend. Dozens of people attended the meeting and eight offered public comments.

Among the speakers was Chris Bardey, a former art teacher recently dismissed by Amador, who upbraided Peugh-Swafford for commenting that the school’s academic performance presented “zero percent proficiency in almost every category.”

“Stop saying ‘zero percent proficiency,’” Bardey told the board. “It’s dumb. It’s mathematically not possible. It’s not the right narrative.” 

Other comments aired concerns about bullying, removal of decorations in support of the LGBTQ community, erosion of special education services and complaints about Amador’s comportment among students and families.

Attendees leaving the school after the meeting was adjourned reported that board members were taking photographs of individuals as they left the auditorium without explaining why or what they would do with the images.

Amador told the Bulletin he was not aware who called police and said, “I am not aware of any board members or staff taking photographs as the community was leaving.”

Peugh-Swafford provided a written copy of her address at the meeting and did not respond directly to questions from the Las Cruces Bulletin, commenting: "As a governing council we cannot comment on personnel matters. We are working hard to make Alma D’Arte a better place for all student artists who want to succeed."

Amador said the only LGBTQ decorations removed were personal belongings of staff who had left, and pointed to artwork on display in the student commons, incorporating rainbows and messages of unity, as a sign of representation.

Alma d’Arte, holding arts integration as part of its mission, is a public charter school founded in 2004. Its charter is overseen by the state Public Education Commission and currently in effect through 2027. The school is under a corrective action plan for compliance with the state’s special education requirements.

Public meetings of government bodies in New Mexico are governed by the Open Meetings Act, which requires that the public be permitted to attend, but does not require public input.

Amador, in his first school year as the school’s head administrator, is due to address the Public Education Commission in Santa Fe next month to answer questions about the school’s academic performance, corrective actions with respect to its special education compliance, enrollment and disenrollment processes and recent financial audit findings.

During Monday’s meeting, the governing board, which has seen high turnover in recent years, announced more changes. Board member Zeke Rodriguez resigned, and three new board members — Cesar Alvarez, Martin Swafford and Tom Escudero — were announced. Remaining on the board are Kimberly Skaggs, Sherri Hursey, Ron Fitzherbert and Peugh-Swafford. Fitzherbert was absent from the meeting.

The board also postponed action on updated student and staff handbooks as well as a new social media policy for students, staff and faculty. Amador told the Bulletin the handbooks will incorporate input from strategic planning sessions in April, as required by the school’s policy. “There we will have feedback from the learning community on addressing the student, staff and faculty handbooks,” he said, bringing them current for the 2024-25 school year.

Steven Van Coblijn, 17, said he had been “illegally withdrawn,” without being formally suspended or expelled but simply told not to return to school in January. He spoke of other students who had also been ejected abruptly from their high school.

Amador told the Bulletin, “No students have been disenrolled due to discipline.”

Van Coblijn, who is finishing his senior year at New America School, agreed to an interview with his mother’s blessing after his angry comment.

He said he wants to see changes in the school’s administration, but: “I don’t want the school to be shut down. I know … from a state perspective, the easiest thing may be to shut down the school, but I want a new administration. I want a new board. … I truly want the school to prosper, especially for the teachers still here and the students who want to go here.”

Alma d’Arte Charter High School, police, public comment, public criticism