Colorado school districts would have to reduce suspensions and set higher standards for school resource officers under a state bill introduced Friday that takes aim at what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline.
The bill also bans the use of handcuffs on elementary school students.
Children of color and those with disabilities are more likely to face heavy discipline that puts them in contact with the criminal justice system and derails their education, and the bill’s sponsors said they want to stop the “criminalization of youth.”
“Black, brown, queer and disabled kids are disproportionately impacted by harsh discipline policies, and we have to change it,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. Herod, who also spearheaded last year’s landmark police reform bill, chairs the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado. Its members have signed on as sponsors of the bill.
Senate Bill 21-182 seeks to minimize student run-ins with police, boost district reporting of discipline practices and create positive, alternative ways to address student behavior.
The bill notes more than 4,000 Colorado students were ticketed or arrested for a nonviolent misdemeanor at schools in the 2017-18 school year.
During the 2018-19 academic year, Black students in Colorado were 3.2 times more likely to be suspended than were white students, and Hispanic students were 1.7 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Students with disabilities were three times more likely to be arrested than their non-disabled peers, according to an ACLU study.
Research also indicates that suspension and ticketing are not effective deterrents and lead to greater problems. The bill calls for numerous changes, including:
- Standardizing discipline reporting to find racial disparities. The bill requires schools to examine the data and make changes.
- Changing codes of conduct to encourage discipline that’s age- and developmentally appropriate. The changes would require schools to find alternatives to suspension and seek preventive measures for certain behaviors.
- Limiting student interactions with law enforcement, such as what a student can be ticketed or arrested for, and banning handcuffs on elementary school students.
- Setting more stringent rules for the selection of school officers, and noting the number of arrests and tickets issued on officers’ evaluations.
- Demonstrating that schools use behavioral management strategies.
Herod and Buckner worked with Gov. Jared Polis’ office to craft the bill, which has won support from Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, NAACP State Conference, and Stand for Children.
Padres & Jóvenes Deputy Director Keri Smith said the bill will create safer schools and better environments for students and force schools to think about how they handle discipline.
“We have prioritized the use of law enforcement rather than identifying alternatives,” Smith said. “And it’s become a bad habit.”
The bill comes after years of efforts by activists to change discipline policies at the local level and amid a national conversation about the role of police in schools.
Denver Public Schools banned the use of handcuffs on young children in 2019, after a parent activist went public about the handcuffing of his 7-year-old son. A Chalkbeat review of 2017-19 district records found that Black students make up just 13% of enrollment but accounted for almost half of handcuffed children.
This week, the ACLU sued the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office over the handcuffing of an 11-year-old boy with autism. The child, a middle school student, had scratched a classmate with a pencil after the classmate drew on him with a marker. The 11-year-old’s parents had to pay a $25,000 bond to release their son from juvenile jail.
Bill sponsor state Sen. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat and former educator, said she’s seen how uneven discipline impacts youth. She said the way punishments are distributed within schools is inherently discriminatory and has harmful consequences on student health, safety, and their ability to learn.
“I want my grandchildren to grow up in an environment where they are supported through their missteps, not taken away in handcuffs,” Buckner said.
The bill is likely to face resistance from some districts that feel they need more tools to deal with misbehavior. It took three tries to pass a law to severely limit the use of suspensions in early elementary school.
Herod said she expects pushback, but said the bill will lead to better results for students. It doesn’t stop teachers from disciplining students or a police officer from being brought into school.
“What it does say is that we can’t just rely only on that,” Herod said.