On April 17, 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division ("DOJ") sent its findings letter to New Mexico's governor, advising him of the results of the April 1997 DOJ investigation of conditions and practices at the state-operated New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped. The school, a residential facility, housed and served blind and severely visually-impaired children supposedly unable to receive free and appropriate education in their local schools. The investigation occurred under the authority of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act ("CRIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1997. DOJ and expert consultants visited the facility, reviewed a wide array of documents there, and conducted interviews with past and present personnel, residents, residents' families, and other interested persons. The letter commended the school's staff for cooperating during the investigation and noted the school had strengths to build upon. Nevertheless, the investigation found deficiencies in resident care, in that certain conditions and services at the school substantially departed from generally accepted standards of care. Constitutional and federal statutory rights of residents were violated in several respects, according to the DOJ.
DOJ concluded that deficiencies existed in the school's conditions of resident care and treatment (1) by its' failing to provide appropriate mental health care services for the significant percentage of residents with serious behavioral or mental health problems; (2) by failing, after having accepted children removed from local schools in order to receive specialized compensatory skills training, to provide that specialized compensatory training (e.g., insufficient Braille training opportunities, insufficient orientation/mobility and cane-use training, and tardy replacement of broken or lost eyeglasses for those with some sight); (3) by inadequate protection of students from harm, including insufficient investigation and response to allegations of abuse and neglect, as well as uncontrolled or inconsistently controlled student behavior and discipline problems; and (4) by failure of the state to make appropriate and documented determinations about the placement and retention of residents at the school, as required by federal statutes (e.g., more than rote, cursory determinations are required to establish that free, appropriate education cannot be afforded in local schools). This latter flaw, DOJ said, violated parts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and related regulations. Moreover, the letter cited a New Mexico statute that appeared to require placement of residents at the school for seven years, regardless of the progress a child made at the school or the ability of a local school district to provide free, appropriate education to the child after matriculation at the state residential school. The letter provided examples of observed deficiencies for each of the four categories.
Minimally-acceptable remedial measures for each of these categories were outlined in the letter, which concluded by inviting discussion about implementing the remediation. The letter provided notice that, absent a resolution of the federal concerns, the DOJ would file a CRIPA lawsuit to compel correction of the identified systemic deficiencies.
On May 27, 1999, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, DOJ simultaneously filed a CRIPA complaint against New Mexico, the school, and its' board of regents and tendered a settlement stipulation between the parties. The stipulation obligated the state to implement detailed remedial measures within established time frames, usually 30, 60, or 180 days, depending on the nature of the particular measure. The lawsuit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, set out that the state's practices at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped violated the residents' federal constitutional rights, privileges, and immunities (without specifying any particular provision of the constitution), and their rights under the IDEA, the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The settlement obligated the state to ensure, and to periodically report upon its progress in ensuring, improvements that would bring the facility and its' practices up to generally accepted professional standards of care. The settlement also allowed for the United States to conduct regular compliance reviews, with facility inspections and interviews of staff and residents, and to fully access and review relevant documents.
District Judge Martha Vazquez accepted the stipulation on May 28, 1999. She then issued an unpublished order granting a motion for conditional dismissal of the case, subject to compliance with the terms of the stipulation.
We have no information indicating post-settlement activity in this case.Mike Fagan - 06/16/2008