Updated: November 01, 2021 01:42 PM
Created: October 31, 2021 05:04 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - With only two people at the New Mexico Public Education Department conducting background checks, people applying for education licenses to work inside schools with questionable past histories are slipping through the process and entering classrooms.
Serenity Richetti’s story exemplifies the problems that can happen when an adult with a questionable past is able to obtain a coaching license through the P.E.D and work with students.
“He would come up and talk to me before class started and he would talk to me when class was ending,” Richetti told KOB 4 in an exclusive interview.
“He talked to me about his marriage,” Richetti said. “He said he it falling apart and he cheated on his wife. He would make remarks that if he was my age, he would date me, and I was pretty and he would compliment me on how I was dressed.”
Eventually, Richetti said the chats turned physical when he groped private areas on her body while at school. That coach was Lawrence Larson. In February 2020, he was charged with criminal sexual contact of a minor and false imprisonment.
But it turns out, before Larson worked at Valencia High School where Richetti was a student, he worked at the Valencia County Detention Center where he was sued in federal court for sexually assaulting a female inmate.
“There is absolutely no reason that anybody doing a basic background check or research wouldn't have uncovered this,” said Shannon Kennedy, Richetti’s attorney.
Kennedy represented Richetti and her family in a lawsuit against Los Lunas Public Schools. The suit alleges that the school district should have never hired Larson because of the prior sexual assault claims against him.
In a simple search, the 4 Investigates Team discovered that federal lawsuit which stated “from August 11, 2007 through September 11, 2007, Defendant Larson, on at least six occasions, coerced, intimidated and threatened the Plaintiff, an inmate, into having sexual relations with him.”
“The warden testified that he fully investigated those allegations and was recommending his termination, but he resigned before the termination,” Kennedy said. “His testimony under oath was, if somebody asked him about Larson, he would have said he is not safe for the supervision of vulnerable females.”
The Los Lunas School District settled Richetti’s lawsuit paying her a $1.2 million settlement. Richetti’s story is just one of many in New Mexico of people with questionable backgrounds who were able to make their way into a classroom.
“We've seen $80-90 million dollars in settlements related to molestation cases in New Mexico over the last five to seven years, which is substantial,” said Marty Esquivel, an attorney for the New Mexico Public School Insurance Authority. “Obviously, that’s a matter of great concern for citizens of this state.”
The New Mexico State Legislature recently strengthened mandatory reporting laws, forcing educators to report other educators with questionable and inappropriate conduct toward students, however the P.E.D doesn’t have much teeth to enforce the new laws. There simply are not enough people at the Public Education Department to conduct thorough and comprehensive background checks or investigate the many claims of misconduct that are reported to the P.E.D.
“We have two people in background checks and two people in investigations,” said Sean Flanagan, the person who oversees licensure at the P.E.D. According to Flanagan, anywhere from 150-300 people are applying every day for a license to be a teacher, substitute, coach or some other position to work in a classroom.
“I don't want to take away from the good work these two staff members are doing, but in your opinion are two people doing background checks an adequate number for as many applications that are coming in?” Investigate Reporter Chris Ramirez asked Flanagan.
“I would say no,” said Flanagan. “And this isn't news to anyone who works in the licensure bureau.”
“I think there is absolutely no question that P.E.D presently does not have the resources it needs to conduct investigations whether into misconduct or into background checks,” Esquivel said.
Esquivel is now urging lawmakers to find funding to create more positions at P.E.D. so there are enough background checkers and investigators to do a thorough and competent job.
“The $80-90 million in settlements is certainly a substantial amount of money, but what you and I really care about is the safety of our children and that is paramount in this debate,” Esquivel said.
Richetti recently told her story of sexual abuse to the Los Lunas School Board. The Board unanimously voted to adopt policies that prohibit school staff from communicating with students on social media platforms, but real victory will come when the P.E.D. has enough people to ensure no more predators make their way into New Mexico’s schools.
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