When a New Mexico School for the Arts student digitally altered a poster calling attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, IsaBella Thomas was disappointed with how administrators handled the situation.
Thomas, 18, and other students who organized a demonstration of roughly 20 people outside the school on Friday morning, say the incident is just one of many at the state-chartered arts school in Santa Fe that’s left them feeling unhappy with NMSA’s administration.
Thomas, who founded the Women of Color Collective on campus, said the group put up posters reading “We fight for those who can’t” around the Montezuma Avenue campus to draw attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women during Native American Heritage Month in November.
Last week, someone digitally altered one of the posters by rearranging letters so it included a sexist slur.
Students say that version of the poster was shared widely on social media.
“When the poster did happen and it was posted all over social media, there was an outcry from the administration, which was interesting to me,” said senior Lucia Rosen, who attended Friday’s demonstration.
“We’re trying to fight for more equity and make the Native students feel safe — make the people of color feel safe in our school walls. I feel like that’s the most important right now,” she added.
New Mexico School for the Arts Director Eric Crites said Friday the school has identified the student responsible, adding NMSA’s disciplinary approach will include “consequences” and also a restorative justice process.
Crites declined to elaborate about the disciplinary measures, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
But Thomas and her peers are hoping school leaders will take more accountability on the school’s culture, which they claim is unwelcoming to students of color.
“We made the [Women of Color Collective] as a safe space for women of color at our school,” Thomas said. “But we’ve had to really shift that kind of motive, specifically for this year because we’re just tired of the way that admin has dealt with situations in the past when it comes to racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual violence at our school.”
Thomas said the incident did spark conversations but only after students spoke out.
“We’re trying to focus on policy and things we want to change,” she said. “It’s us trying to push admin to take responsibility, take accountability.”
Following the demonstration, Crites said he knew students were unhappy with the administration’s handling of incidents like the altering of the poster.
“Based on what we heard today from our students, [it] hasn’t been enough,” he said in an interview. “That matters, and we have to respond to that.”
The demonstration took place during a previously scheduled staff training on culturally and linguistically responsive education Friday morning.
During a break, several faculty members came outside and watched the proceedings. Principal Denise Hinson and Crites also joined the crowd.
“Your staff should reflect the student body,” one community member shouted.
Participants in the demonstration called for an action plan from administrators to make students feel more comfortable.
According to federal statistics, the New Mexico School for the Arts had an enrollment of 292 students during last school year, more than half of them white. The school reported having 103 Hispanic and 21 Native American students. Six students identified as Black; seven as Asian.
No one in the school’s administration is Native, and the school has only three Native staff members, Crites said.
“There’s only so little of us,” said one sophomore student who declined to provide her name but identified as Native American. “There’s no representation of Indigenous students … it’s really hard to go to school there.”
The student expressed concern over another incident earlier this year, in which a history teacher repeated slurs while discussing colonization. Crites confirmed the incident in an interview Friday.
“There was significant conversation about it,” Crites said. “And really an understanding that hasn’t always existed in schools … there’s a clear understanding now we cannot be using it in reference or discussion in education settings. Any slurs.”
Crites declined to say whether the teacher faced disciplinary action over the incident.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Crites said the person leading the staff training ended up facilitating a discussion between the demonstrators and school employees.
“I think there was an understanding all around there are long-term goals we need to work on to make sure all of our students feel a sense of belonging at our school,” he said.
Crites said he’s meeting with the demonstrators again next week.