NEWCOMB — Newcomb High School does not look like a school where bad things happen.

It is quiet, in the middle of the desert and has less than 250 students. During lunch, students play Hacky Sack outside. Some pair off to eat lunch, make out or gossip.

Like any school, bad things happen sometimes. But unlike many schools, it can be hours before help comes if help comes at all.

"It's amazing the reasons (the police) tell you they can't show up," said Principal Raul Sanchez during Central Consolidated School District school board meeting on April 18.

This is Sanchez's first year at the school, though he has been in school administration for nearly four decades. He said Newcomb High students behave no better or worse than those at any other school, but, because the school is isolated and the police are slow to respond, students sometimes act out.

"The police, they say, "Parents. It's their responsibility to get their kids,'" Sanchez said. "Some of these parents don't want to handle their kids."

Sanchez said it is safe to say that many of the students have difficult lives at home, especially because rates of alcohol and drug abuse are high within the Navajo Nation, as are the numbers of domestic violence incidents.

Newcomb is on the Navajo Nation, and the majority of students are Navajo. The community consists of the school, the chapter house, a tiny library and a church. A gas station is down the road.

"Alcohol's not allowed on the Navajo Nation, but it's readily available," said Sanchez on Wednesday as he walked the school halls, nodding to students as they passed. "There's not a lot to do."

Right now, about 15 students are on contract, meaning the school is carefully monitoring them. They are not allowed to bring backpacks to school, and they must check in regularly throughout the day.
Newcomb High School students transition between classes on Wednesday. The school has concerns about how secure the campus is since it has to keep the doors
Newcomb High School students transition between classes on Wednesday. The school has concerns about how secure the campus is since it has to keep the doors open after-hours for students involved in extracurricular activities. (Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times)

The students are on contract for a variety of reasons, sometimes because they brought alcohol or drugs to school. The school takes in students from nearly a dozen tiny rural communities in the area, and students sometimes get involved in gangs that reflect the places they come from, according to Sanchez.

"The problems you find here are problems you would find at any high school," said CCSD spokesman James Preminger.

Some students have a more than hour-and-a-half bus ride to school. Only about eight students walk to school. This can also pose an issue. Because parents sometimes work far away many of them about an hour away in Farmington they cannot pick up their children if they get in trouble.

Sanchez said the isolation is an issue namely because if the school truly needed assistance not just for a fight or for an ill-tempered student, but for something out of the staff's control it is uncertain how quickly emergency crews would respond.

Sanchez said he has thought about this time and again, especially since the shooting in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. that left 20 children and six staff dead.

The closest hospital and police station to Newcomb High are about 45 minutes away in Shiprock. The police station is run by the Navajo Nation police, who are sparsely spread over 27,000 miles of the tribe's land.

Only about 0.4 officers are available for every 1,000 people across the Navajo Nation, according to U.S. Department of Justice reports.

"The Shiprock police district is the largest district, and, sometimes, there's only a handful of officers," said Erny Zah, spokesman for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President.

The police department's captain, Ivan Tsosie, did not return calls from comment. It is not know how many officers are employed at the department and how often the department has received and responded to calls from Newcomb High School.

Because of the lag in police response time, Sanchez said the school needs more security.

"We need to look at the scenarios. Newcomb needs more security, bottom line," he told the district school board on April 18, appealing to the board to boost the school's security.

On both sides of the school, various entrances remain open because the high school shares students with the middle school next door. During and after school, student must be able to go back and forth.

The school has video surveillance, which includes 22 cameras set up at different vantage points on campus. The sole security guard at the school, Virginia Tsosie, can see watched the surveillance camera footage from a laptop in her small office.

There are various corners of the campus, though, that she cannot see.

"I feel like I need an extra person because I'm the only person," Tsosie said.

She said the biggest issue at the school is fights.

This year, the school has gone into lockdown once because of a brawl between several students. But the staff has to break up fights once every month or two, Sanchez said.

Sometimes, law enforcement responds when staff call, but it might take three minutes, or three hours, Sanchez said. Other times, no one shows up at all, he said.

"You call somebody, and you expect them to come," Sanchez said.

At the April 18 week's school board meeting, Sanchez's plea was met with mixed reactions. Some of the board members nodded in agreement, while others saw it as an internal issue, one that should be figured out at the school.

School Board Secretary Christina Aspaas said Newcomb High staff should examine the disciplinary actions staff take, implying that the school needs to establish more respect between staff and students.

"It's not an issue of respect," Sanchez said at the meeting, visibly frustrated.

Whether the district will consider Sanchez's proposed boost in security remains to be seen, but Sanchez is hoping for another security guard and a handful of additional cameras.

It is a measure that a lot of schools are taking, especially since the Sandy Hook shooting.

Supercircuits, a Texas-based security firm that has worked with Navajo Nation schools, has seen an increase in schools opting for increased surveillance and for "access control." Access control includes measures that limit who can enter and exit a building.

For instance, many schools are giving students and staff identification cards that allow them in and out of buildings. Staff can also lock down a building by swiping their card, so that people can only exit a building but not enter.

Such an option would cost about $500 to $600 per door, or set of double doors, according to Bill Rogers, Supercircuits vice president of sales. A 16-camera surveillance system costs anywhere from several thousand dollars to several tens of thousands of dollars.

"You start with the basics, and then you grow from there. You just add to it," Rogers said.

At rural schools, investing in an access control system would be beneficial because then the schools could create "trap zones," Rogers said. Trap zones enable a school to lock a person in a contained area like between a set of doors which limits their access to other people and gives emergency responders more time to get on scene.

For Sanchez, increased security is a must.

"What if I am not here one day?" he said. "The day doesn't stop. I think of all the "what ifs.'"

Jenny Kane can be reached at; 505-564-4636. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane.