Our view: Schools must handle sexual assault allegations better

Santa Fe New Mexican

September 9, 2021

Unanswered questions — disturbing ones — surround the case of a former school health aide charged with three second-degree felony counts of molesting a child.

Here’s what we know: Santa Fe police arrested 30-year-old Robert Apodaca in July over allegations he sexually abused a boy in 2019, including at the school nurse’s office at Gonzales Community School.

Apodaca and the boy knew each other through the North Santa Fe Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. An elder at the congregation reported Apodaca to police after the family came to him in June. That elder, by the way, did exactly the right thing, unlike others in this mess.

The former health aide also is being investigated by state police over a more recent alleged incident of child molestation, this one at Santo Niño Regional Catholic School. Apodaca has not been charged in that case.

Of concern to parents is the man’s work record. Apodaca spent time at Ortiz Middle School, Tesuque, Kearney and Chaparral elementary schools and the now-closed Capshaw Middle School between December 2012 and September 2020.

Police, in confirming Apodaca’s employment at Santa Fe Public Schools, were not overly generous in sharing information with district officials. According to the arrest warrant affidavit, police contacted the district — via email to the human resources department — to confirm the dates when Apodaca worked. That’s it.

Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez says public school officials did not know of the serious charges against Apodaca until last week. That’s not soon enough.

A communication channel needs to be established so district officials are alerted about sexual misconduct or abuse cases alleged to have occurred in schools just as school officials must inform law enforcement when they receive an allegation.

Police and school officials should sit down and discuss how to ensure that news is shared quickly. That way, school officials can begin informing parents about such incidents when necessary.

Because some of the abuse against the boy in 2019 is alleged to have happened at school, Gonzales school officials held a virtual discussion to listen to parents and answer their questions. This, however, occurred only after New Mexican inquiries into whether school officials had notified parents about Apodaca’s arrest. Santa Fe Public Schools can do more to let parents know when danger comes near their children.

Now, to look at what happened at Santo Niño Regional Catholic School, where the actions of veteran Principal Robin Chavez are under intense scrutiny in her handling of allegations against Apodaca.

According to a state police report provided to the newspaper by an attorney, last spring a staffer saw Apodaca sitting with a boy on his lap in a dark, locked room where students were watching an after-school film April 23. Chavez was informed of the incident April 26 and she alerted the boy’s mother, who took the complaint herself to state police April 28.

When police came to talk to Chavez, she told them officials at the Archdiocese of Santa Fe had directed her not to inform authorities about the allegation, according to the police report. The archdiocese denies anyone gave that order.

We don’t know what happened. The archdiocese’s policy on reporting sexual abuse allegations is clear, however. It states: “Anyone sexually abused as a minor or who knows about a case of sexual abuse of a minor should immediately report it to the civil authorities. When such sexual abuse has been committed by a cleric, religious, seminarian, diocesan or parish employee or a diocesan or parish volunteer it also should be reported to the Archbishop of Santa Fe through the Archdiocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator.” There is no wiggle room.

What’s clear is that after Apodaca was relieved of his duties at Santo Niño, parents were told little. A newsletter that went out said simply, “One last announcement, Mr. Robert is no longer employed by Santo Niño.”

Later, when Chavez learned of Apodaca’s arrest and charges over the summer, she also did not inform the school community.

A group of Santo Niño parents wants answers and is circulating a petition asking for Chavez to be removed and for Apodaca’s hiring to be investigated. He and Chavez had worked together at Gonzales, where she was assistant principal before taking the top job at Santo Niño.

This much is clear: School officials, and not just in this situation, must do a better job of letting parents know when employees are accused of wrongdoing. Police should keep school officials informed of cases involving school employees and children.

In other words, protect children, not the reputation of a school or a church.

Inez Russell Gomez

Editorial Page Editor