Senators Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Linda Newell, D-Denver, voiced their concern today that children’s lives are being destroyed by zero-tolerance policies in Colorado schools. While Senate Judiciary committee members had no tolerance for increasingly heavy handed punishment of student’s playground pranks, some reform advocates testified the bill may serve to shackle reforms already in the works.
SB 133 as written would direct the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to study the overuse of suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests and examine racial discrimination in disciplinary actions. The CCJJ would then report those findings to the education and judiciary committees of the General Assembly in December 2011.
“This bill is in line with the national movement to reform school discipline. Our focus should be on student success, supporting student growth, and preparing students for bright futures,” Hudak said. “This bill promotes school safety and academic success by helping to identify policies that will keep our classrooms safe and guide young people to learn from their mistakes.”
The bill is being offered in response to recent statistics showing that over the past 10 years 100,000 Colorado students have been referred to law enforcement by their schools. During the 2008-2009 school year, 60 percent of such students were referred for minor misconduct including disobedience, defiance, minor fights and disorderly conduct.
Child advocates, including Padres & Jovenes Unidos, who worked with sponsors to bring the bill forward, found behaviors that once put a child in a principal’s office are now landing them in legal trouble.
The group cited numerous cases where students were either charged with crimes or expelled from school for actions that many older individuals may remember as commonplace occurrences around the schoolyard. One example was an 11-year-old boy who was given a ticket for 3rd degree assault after accidentally hitting his teacher with a bean bag chair when swinging it around the classroom.
Bill sponsors said that a no-tolerance policy is deterring students from gaining the proper education and in many cases places them into a law enforcement system ill equipped to handle such matters appropriately.
Bill sponsors offered two amendments during committee in order to eliminate a fiscal note and calm the concerns of the CCJJ and Justice Department.
Newell offered the committee what she called a choice between amendments. One of those would go so far as to offer a strike below she said would water the bill down to simply ensure that the CCJJ include the bill’s concerns in their investigations with no date attached.
However, Sen. Morgan Carroll said that if a study was to be done, a date was necessary lest the work never be completed.
Newell told the Colorado Independent she wanted a time frame attached to the study but was working on reducing a $200,000 fiscal note that appeared to be a significant challenge to the bill’s passage.
“We would prefer to move forward with a time frame. Our concern is that if we don’t have a time frame we are going to be sitting on this two years from now without a solution,” Newell said. “Too many kids are being accidentally thrown into [law enforcement] and we just need to solve this problem.”
She said that she and stakeholders would be working to try and eliminate or whittle down the fiscal note over the next few days.
Regina Huerter, chair of the CCJJ committee to be tasked with the bill’s mandates, said that among other problems the bill moved too fast.
“What exactly are the questions we need to be asking,” Huerter said. “We will not know that until we have done this greater analysis of all of these different issues that are coming out across all of these different systems. We are beginning that work in March.”
She said their time line would not see them reaching the bill’s target due date, though they would provide recommendations next year.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said he was sympathetic with the concerns laid out by Huerter. However, he said the committee should make certain that the questions embodied in the spirit of the bill were being actively solved.
“We have to be able to step back and we have to let our law enforcement step back and say ‘kids are different from adults,” King said. “Having been a school resource officer, quite frankly, I was there to help the school. I wasn’t there to strictly enforce the letter of the law. I was there to enforce the spirit of the law. And we have gotten away from that because of the idea of … zero tolerance.”
The bill was laid over while the amendments are finalized.