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School discipline reform bill launched

It took awhile, but the voting members of the Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline Tuesday voted 5-1 to approve the text of a bill designed to reform the way schools impose discipline on students.

But the vote is just the start of a long process, and how – or if – the measure will emerge from the 2012 legislature is anyone’s guess.

Panel chair Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, repeatedly said, “This is just the beginning” for the bill, adding she expects further amendments to the measure will be drafted before it has its first hearing during the regular session.

And one member, Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, signaled that there isn’t yet full agreement. “This bill must change dramatically. … I still think it’s way too onerous” on districts and schools, he said. King is the administrator of a charter school.

The task force, composed of six legislators and 10 citizen members (educators, youth advocates and criminal justice professionals) spent all day working through the 44-page draft bill and more than two dozen proposed amendments. Only the legislators on such hybrid committees are allowed to vote.

The citizen members got an unvarnished view of the underbelly of the legislative process – amendments to amendments, reconsiderations, withdrawals of amendments, lawmakers losing track of what they were doing and the usual messiness of bill markup.

Newell kept apologizing for the confusion to lawyer Richard Sweetman of the legislative drafting office, who gamely tried to explain proposed amendments to the legislators and keep track of their changes.

“Mr. Sweetman, I know this is horrible for you,” Newell said just before the lunch break.

As the afternoon rapidly waned Newell had to cut off discussion and ask for up-or-down votes. And time ran out before members could suggest their “conceptual amendments” – legislative jargon for proposed changes that haven’t yet been put in writing.

The impetus behind creation of the task force was a concern by some legislators and advocacy groups that schools have relied too heavily in recent years on zero-tolerance policies and have overused expulsions, suspensions and referrals to in-school police officers.

The main goal of the draft bill is to steer school districts into using other forms of discipline.

Some key elements of the draft include:

  • Making possession of a firearm at school the only offense requiring mandatory expulsion.
  • Giving schools and districts greater discretion in discipline.
  • Requiring districts to create or update discipline codes that use age-appropriate discipline, limit use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and emphasize use of prevention, intervention, restorative justice, mediation and similar “soft” techniques to deal with student misconduct.
  • Requiring student orientation on discipline codes.

The draft bill includes lots of “to the extent practicable” language, but it also includes reporting requirements for districts so the state can keep track of how their discipline policies are working. It was those requirements that drew criticism from King, who was on the losing end of several 5-1 votes on amendments.

Education interest groups are watching the bill closely, and the Capitol hearing room had an audience full of education lobbyists.

The bill next goes to the Legislative Council, a panel of legislative leaders, on Nov. 8. The council decides if bills from between-session study committees fit under committee assignments. Even if that group rejects a bill, members are free to introduce it on their own.

Newell said task force members will continue to meet with representatives of various interest groups over the next couple of month to discuss possible further changes in the bill.

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