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  • Writer's pictureABQ RAW

OPINION: How We Failed to Prevent a Murder

Police and students stand behind crime scene tape of a Feb. 25th, 2022 shooting that left one West Mesa High School student dead near the school.

How We Failed to Prevent a Murder

It’s fairly common to see ordinary people and politicians condemn guns every single time gun violence results in someone tragically being murdered. That’s especially true when our youth are the victims. Albuquerque is no stranger to gun violence either. At the time of this article, Albuquerque now has 25 homicides in 2022 according to ABQ RAW's homicide map and it’s only the beginning of March. Our city’s problem with gun related crime is bad enough that the FBI created the following advertisement and put it on three billboards inside city limits.

Let that sink in. The F.B.I. is worried enough about this problem that it paid for three billboards to target the issue. Albuquerque has had some record years lately and for all the wrong reasons. There were over 125 homicides in 2021 and 721 drug overdose deaths in 2020. It’s not surprising to see homicides increasing as the city grapples with a drug epidemic - another problem that has become all too common is the US. But to take aim on guns as being the problem and that we need to do more to prevent gun crime is a divisive topic to say the least. It can always be summed up along party lines and that stalemate is about as old as the cease fire between North and South Korea.

This article focuses on what contributed to the death of one of those 25 victims and how it might have been prevented. It’s written by a teacher who was there that day and the teacher wants to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal for speaking out about the reality that right now nothing proactive is being done at APS or in New Mexico to prevent another student from being murdered. All of our policies at APS are reactive when it comes to guns and it isn’t doing enough to prevent teenagers from having guns at school. Likewise, New Mexico isn’t doing enough either to make it harder for teenagers to buy guns. The hope is that by speaking out, things will change and our schools will be safer for everyone.

What should have been an ordinary Friday morning on February 25th turned into a tragedy at West Mesa High School after a student, Andrew, was shot and killed. When the shooting happened around 8 AM, Andrew was near a used car dealership across from the football field. It’s a common sight to see student cars parked on both sides of 64th street, which runs parallel to the football field. Likewise, it’s common to see students in this area when they are supposed to be in class.

A woman gives a West Mesa high school student a hug after being released from a lock down after a student was killed near the high school.

The fact that many teenagers ditch at least one class while in high school is not earth shattering. I’m willing to bet many who read this ditched at least one class back in high school. Forbes once wrote about Montgomery County, Maryland that “countywide, out of 11,000 2018 graduates, 1,800 had at least 20 unexcused absences in one class - just in the course of a single 90-day semester.” That works out to 16%. While that data isn’t about APS and is a few years old now, chances are it would be a conservative percentage for APS’s data on absenteeism. For West Mesa, absenteeism is a serious problem with a total of 49,538 combined daily absences so far this school year with 2,075 students in the report. That gives an average of 24 absences for each of the 2,075 students and the school year isn’t over yet. This covers any reason a student would be absent however and it would be impossible to know how many of those absences were due to ditching vs other legitimate reasons.

A large portion of the blame for West Mesa’s problem with students ditching though is due to how the school was designed. West Mesa looks like many other high schools that were created decades ago and evolved over time into a campus that has multiple buildings. That doesn’t work very well if you want to prevent ditching, which is part of why a lot of new high schools are built as one large building. It’s a lot easier to control access to and from the school if everyone must enter or leave through one door unless there is an emergency. This results in a high school that is easier to monitor and keep everyone safe. For a school like West Mesa to implement a security plan to force everyone through one door means a lot of fencing or walls is needed.

The entrance of West Mesa High School

West Mesa received a makeover earlier this school year to install fences and gates that would close off access to the school. The design allows people to leave the school through multiple exits but if people want to get back onto campus, they would need to enter the main door that leads to the front office. The problem is all these improvements haven’t even been implemented yet. The gates can be used to enter the school grounds if you have a key or it’s left unlocked. Often these gates are left unlocked. Another problem with these gates is that a student could jam some paper inside the lock or tape it and be able to enter later. Another problem is the building right next to the drop off and pick up lane is always left unlocked, which circumvents the fences and the gates. The gates and fences wouldn’t be that hard to jump over for a teenager either. But even though APS has spent a considerable amount of taxpayer money on security upgrades to West Mesa, the fact remains these upgrades aren’t even being used yet to try and cut down on student ditching.

An officer points to the direction for the Office of Medical Investigator needs to go for the crime scene.

The issue of cracking down on ditching is one in which more could be done. If a parent or teacher was to watch the front of the school at the start of lunch time they would see scores of students walking right down Fortuna on their way to Blake’s or Subway or Dutch Bro’s Coffee. More students can be found walking off the football field onto 64th street where there is a McDonald’s close by. Oh, and maybe they parked their car on 64th too. Students are all too aware of how easy it is to ditch at West Mesa and then return to the school without being caught. It also doesn’t help that you can watch parents pull up at the school to pick up their kid for lunch and then drop the kid back off without ever notifying the school. Some might not see a problem with all of this, until you realize that schools are legally responsible for the safety and wellbeing of students during school hours if the student is present that day. A school district could be sued by parents for failing to do anything meaningful about ditching should anything happen to their child.

The other problem at West Mesa that contributed to last Friday’s shooting is too many students have guns while at school; either on them or in their car. Friday’s shooting was the outcome of a stolen ghost gun belonging to Andrew. He had thought another student, Marco, had stolen it. Whether or not Marco did indeed have the stolen weapon is unknown. Marco, who attends West Mesa, pulled out a pistol and fired several shots at Andrew. At least some of those bullets hit Andrew and caused his death. The issue of teenagers getting their hands on firearms is becoming a rather dangerous problem in Albuquerque and New Mexico as a whole. Of the 25 homicides so far, at least three have involved teenagers. Albuquerque is not alone in this problem by any means. Santa Fe had a particularly ugly 2021, with at least nine separate situations involving guns and a total of 13 teenagers were the perpetrators.

At West Mesa there have been several times in the past few years that a student was found to have a firearm on them while on campus or just off campus. The most recent before last Friday was literally this past Valentine’s Day when a student had a gun in his backpack. Back in October a different student accidentally shot themselves in while their car, parked just outside of campus. Being as brutally honest as I can be, every single day at least one student has a gun on campus at West Mesa. We just don’t know which students are walking around with a firearm. It’s not hard for them to get one either and that’s a major problem. Anyone at any time can search online for ghost guns, also known as 80% complete receivers and homemade firearms. The receiver is the part of the gun that is regulated by federal law. These firearms require some work by whoever purchases them in order to make them operational. Because of that, they are considered parts to firearms and not required by federal law to be sold by a federally licensed firearms dealer, not required to pass the national firearms check which is outdated by the way and has zero age restriction.

Teenagers and felons alike can go online and buy what is needed to create a pistol, an ArmaLite Rifle (what AR actually means), or even an AK-47. Creating a pistol from these online kits is the easiest and will cost you less than $1000. Creating an AR or AK-47 will cost more and requires more tools and knowledge, with the AK-47 being the most challenging to build. So even if you don’t know anyone who will sell you a firearm, it’s very easy to find a kit online that just about anyone can build. There are numerous videos on YouTube that cover the step-by-step process to finish these firearms. Building a pistol only requires a cordless drill, a box knife, and a metal file or sandpaper once you have the kit. Buying ammo for a pistol does require the buyer to be 21 but that doesn’t require a background check, just an ID. For a teenager they just need a friend who will sell them the ammo or a fake ID.

The ATF has tried to put an end to ghost guns but the way our laws are currently written, if someone doesn’t build a gun with the intention of selling it then they aren’t doing anything illegal. The companies that sell the parts aren’t doing anything illegal either if the gun is considered to be no more than 80% complete. Fixing this issue at the federal level is a debate that I won’t dive into here. At the state level however, New Mexico could do something about this problem. We could pass a law that requires the purchase of these kits to go through a federally licensed firearms dealer and the buyer to pass a background check. The argument that outlawing the sale of 80% complete receivers by online retailers to individuals without going through a local firearms dealer would infringe on the 2nd amendment rights of law-abiding citizens is complete bullshit. If you’re a law-abiding citizen, would it be that big of an hurtle to have to pick up your purchase from a local firearms dealer after passing a quick background check?

Yes, it’s true that people who want to break the law don’t care what the law says but that’s not how the online retailers for these kits will behave. Even if it doesn’t violate any federal laws yet, these online retailers know the ATF is more than happy to help prosecute them for breaking any state laws. While it wouldn’t eliminate the ability for teens and criminals to get their hands on a gun, it would make it harder. People need to realize that you can buy a kit to build a 9mm semi-automatic pistol for about $800 and then spend less than an hour building it with zero background checks, delivered to your mailbox! If that doesn’t scare the shit out of you, it should. I own a few guns and I’m currently licensed to conceal carry in New Mexico; but I usually leave the house without a firearm because it’s a very personal and serious decision anytime you decide to take a gun with you. Also, my work is the most dangerous place I go to on a regular basis and guns aren’t allowed so I’ve had to get used to an increased amount of risk in my life. You never know when a student is going to pull out a gun and shoot someone! Realizing how easy it is for ANYONE to get their hands on a gun is a serious problem and it makes many gun owners get a concealed carry license. Ghost guns are a large part of the reason why teenagers are running around with a pistol right now.

Another part of West Mesa’s [and APS’s] problem with guns on campus has to do with not using metal detectors or x-ray machines. We can no longer continue to ignore the fact that APS is an inner-city school district with the problems that constantly happen in inner-city schools, which require the solutions that are often found at these schools. For example, Boston has metal detectors at 42 of its high schools and middle schools, with 17 being the walk-through type. Boston has seen a drop in violence, especially involving a weapon, at their high schools after metal detectors were installed. LA’s Unified School District (LAUSD) has used metal detectors since 1993 after the accidental fatal shooting of Demetrius Rice at Fairfax HS. LAUSD recent changed their policy to eliminate random metal detector wand checks over concerns that it made students feel discriminated against.

Inner city school districts all over the US use some sort of metal detector on a regular basis at least in their high schools. Ultimately, they make schools safer but it comes at the expense of the school’s public image. I’d rather have a high school with metal detectors that results in a safer school than to stick my head in the sand and pretend a bunch of hormonal foolish boys aren’t running around acting like a gangster. Having a concealed firearm at any time is a very serious decision, as does ever using it. That’s not something a teenager should ever be trusted with and more has to be done to prevent this, not just react to it.

The tragic death of a West Mesa student might have been prevented if more was done to crack down on ditching, fighting, and ghost guns. This is a what-if that no one will ever know for sure. We can’t go back in time to change what happened. We can however advocate for change moving forwards. This isn’t about pointing fingers or trying to place blame for what happened on February 25th. West Mesa has a serious security problem and the community of West Mesa needs to understand the root problem and work on fixing it. This means parents need to support initiatives that will make it harder for them to pick up or drop off their student. This means parents will need to support aggressive tardy policies and work harder to drop off their kids on time. This means harsher punishments for fighting at school. This means more construction will likely be needed and it will take the support of families to get the necessary funding. This means families will need to ask more of APS to secure the school and make it safe. It’s hard for schools to get anything additional if families aren’t asking for it or demanding it. It takes a lot of voices all wanting the same thing to get political bodies, such as our state government, to provide additional funds for campus infrastructure and to regulate the online sales of specific parts to build firearms.

It would be a mistake to take this information and just try to blame APS for not doing enough to prevent ditching, fighting, and firearms from being on campus. Likewise, it would be a mistake to use this information to just bash our politicians. Parents and the West Mesa community might not have realized that ditching is a serious problem or how prevalent guns are at our school, but they most definitely are part of the situation that resulted in a student getting murdered. Whenever you point fingers, remember 3 fingers are pointing back at you. If the community of West Mesa wants to see a safer and more secure school, it will take a lot of work from the entire community. That’s not just teachers and administration. Let’s not forget that schools everywhere are still dealing with lots of problems that were exacerbated by the pandemic and are reaching a breaking point. Our country is more divided than ever it seems, and violence is becoming far too common. If you have kids, talk to them about how they are doing. Don’t just tell them to not fight with other students, help your kids learn how to de-escalate situations or just walk away from them instead. If they see or hear something, they need to say something!

It might be cheesy to say this, but we need to listen to the Beatles more often… sometimes all you need is love. If we can start there… compassion, support, advocacy, community, and understanding is a lot easier to follow. Love also means doing what is right, not what is convenient or what your emotions are telling you to do. West Mesa needs a lot of love right now, and some of that might need to be some tough love too.

This opinion was shared by an anonymous staff member that works at West Mesa High School in Albuquerque, N.M. The victim was Andrew Burson, 16, and Marco Trejo was the suspect accused of shooting his class mate. Here is the story of the criminal complaint:

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