LAHS Teachers Seek To Set Record Straight

Los Alamos High School teachers Olivia Lujan, left, and Joanne Ploeger in Lujan’s classroom last Wednesday discuss an incident for which they want to set the record straight. Photo by Carol A. Clark/
Los Alamos Daily Post

Two Los Alamos High School teachers met with the Los Alamos Daily Post Wednesday to share their perspective on an incident involving two school board members that took place last month at Los Alamos High School.

School Board President Judy Bjarke-McKenzie and member Nan Holmes stated in a story published Jan. 22 in the Los Alamos Daily Post that LAHS Principal Debbie Belew-Nyquist ordered them escorted off campus.

“We are not saying the school board members are lying … we just want to set the record straight and tell our side of the story,” said Olivia Lujan who teaches AP Physics and Conceptual Physics at the high school.

Lujan also was the junior class sponsor until Jan. 22 and is the teacher at the center of the controversy about this spring’s senior prom. Lujan resigned as junior student body advisor for the prom, she said, because she wasn’t being kept apprised by the students of what they were doing.

She describes the day the parents of one of those students and the two school board members entered her classroom.

“I was in the storage room in my classroom getting my lunch and walked out to find four adults in my classroom … none of them wearing visitor badges,” Lujan said. “After 19 years of teaching – you are on high alert when someone shows up unannounced without a badge.”

This is Lujan’s first year of teaching at LAHS and she did not know two of the adults in her room were school board members and she said the other two she did recognize as being parents.

“One of the parents told me that Dr. Belew-Nyquist said it was okay for them to come and talk to me whenever they wanted and that they didn’t need an appointment,” Lujan said. “I was startled and felt intimidated because I was not expecting them or the school board members. I had set up a meeting with a student but that was all.”

Someone had alerted Belew-Nyquist that the parents and school board members had entered Lujan’s classroom, Lujan said, adding that within a few minutes, Belew-Nyquist and Athletic Director Ann Stewart came into her classroom.

“Dr. Belew-Nyquist was not shaking in anger, she very politely informed the parents and school board members to excuse her but she had to speak to me and we stepped across the hall. Someone from the district office called the school board president and she stepped outside to take the call. I don’t know why the school board members said Dr. Belew-Nyquist was angry and ordered them escorted off campus – but that did not happen.”

Dr. Belew-Nyquist asked Lujan if she had scheduled a meeting with the group, Lujan said, adding that she told Belew-Nyquist she did not have a meeting scheduled.

“It was really a sad situation because Dr. Belew-Nyquist didn’t do anything wrong – all she was trying to do was protect me – the first thing she said was ‘Are you okay.’ She was doing what an administrator is supposed to do, which is to protect her teachers.”

Joanne Ploeger teaches special education chemistry classes and is the student council adviser at the high school. She joined Lujan in Wednesday’s meeting with the Los Alamos Daily Post. She explained that a student in the main office that day had dropped her pepper spray, which was on her key ring and a student standing nearby picked it up and gave it a squirt, permeating the vicinity. The area was evacuated, including the counter where visitors normally check in and pick up their badge – which likely accounted for school board members and parents in Lujan’s classroom not having badges, she said.   

Vice Principal Carter Payne is the one who spotted the parents and school board members heading into Lujan’s classroom and notified Belew-Nyquist, Ploeger said, adding that Belew-Nyquist contacted Superintendent Gene Schmidt who called Bjarke-McKenzie on her cell phone and suggested they should follow the proper protocol.

The athletic director accompanied the parents and school board members to the parking lot to ensure they avoided the area of the pepper spray vapor, she said.

Ploeger had a meeting scheduled with Belew-Nyquist the day after the incident on another matter and said the meeting had to be moved to a different location because the fumes in the office area were still strong enough that they caused her to cough and her eyes to water.

Lujan and Ploeger have both been involved with the girls on the junior student council who have been planning the senior prom. They explained that earlier in the year the girls gave a “fantastic presentation” at a meeting last summer with the superintendent and other school officials and explained what they were going to do to raise money to hold the prom at Buffalo Thunder.

“At that meeting their proposal was approved but they were directed to keep working on the goals,” Ploeger said. “The first fundraiser, a dance, didn’t happen and a rummage sale was rescheduled four times, there was no meeting with a representative from Buffalo Thunder and they didn’t set up a parent’s meeting.”

As time marched on and these goals were falling behind, Belew-Nyquist asked the girls during a meeting in October for a plan B.

“They are teenagers and this is a learning curve,” Ploeger said. “Every plan needs to have a B and C and D. Dr. Belew-Nyquist never told them Buffalo Thunder was off the table but asked them as a Plan B whether they would consider the golf course. Dr. Belew-Nyquist didn’t place blame … it was always ‘We did not meet our deadlines’ … and ‘what steps do we need to take to move forward’ … never saying it wasn’t going to happen.”     

Ploeger said that on Jan. 19, she and Lujan spent two hours with Holmes and another school board member going over a timetable “step by step” of what had transpired since July regarding the prom planning.

She said the students on the prom planning committee are scholarly, athletes, dancers, student council members and they have jobs.

“I want to go on record that I laud these students for all they’ve done … they’ve poured their heart and soul into this,” Ploeger said. “But they’re teenagers and see the pie in the sky but not how hard the work is to get there.”  

Belew-Nyquist has not been available for comment during the past couple of weeks. Lujan said she took emergency leave to be with her ailing mother who has since passed away.

“We just want to set the record straight and tell the community that Dr. Belew-Nyquist is a great administrator … she cares so much about everyone … she protects our students and she protects her teachers,” Lujan said.

The prom issue was discussed at the last School Board meeting and the consensus of the members was to support the prom.