Thousands of Colorado students are referred to law enforcement each year by principals, teachers, and other school staff, and even more students are ticketed or arrested by police.
A bill introduced in the state legislature last month would have dramatically decreased those types of interactions between students and police, springing a leak in what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline. But educators, school district officials, and law enforcement agencies all raised concerns, with the strongest opponents even saying the bill would legalize crime.
On Tuesday, the day before the bill was scheduled for a first hearing in the legislature, the bill’s sponsors announced they were killing the legislation.
“After many conversations with educators and law enforcement, we believe there is not a path forward,” sponsors state Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora and state Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver, both Democrats, said in an emailed statement. “While we have been disappointed by the divisive and inaccurate rhetoric around this bill, we remain committed to lifting up the voices of students and families who have faced the consequences of harsh disciplinary tactics.”
Students of color are more likely to face harsh discipline at school than are white students, with state data showing that Black students are disproportionately ticketed and arrested.
Senate Bill 182 would have prevented all students from being referred to police, ticketed, or arrested for misdemeanors, petty offenses, and municipal code violations. That includes things like disorderly conduct, tobacco and alcohol violations, and marijuana possession. Police still could have gotten involved if a student posed an imminent threat of serious bodily harm to someone else or was suspected of a felony.
Low-level offenses account for a significant portion of tickets and arrests at school. State data isn’t detailed enough to calculate an exact number, but a Chalkbeat analysis found it’s likely at least 66% of last year’s tickets and arrests would not have happened if this bill were law.
Instead of ticketing or arresting students, Senate Bill 182 would have directed police to report such incidents to the school principal. The bill also would have banned the use of handcuffs on elementary students, a step the Denver school district took in 2019, and would have required school districts to report more information about racial disparities in discipline and to develop plans to reduce them.
“Childhood behavior should be dealt with with childhood responses,” said state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who was a co-sponsor of the bill. Bacon is also a former teacher and current vice president of the Denver school board.
But law enforcement officers and other opponents saw it differently.
Jason Presley, a member of the state police union, the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, and president of the Arapahoe Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement Tuesday that he was concerned Senate Bill 182 did a disservice to crime victims.
“There are crimes that do occur in schools,” Presley said. “If we can’t get involved — and the way this bill was written, we wouldn’t have been able to get involved — it would have turned the schools into a breeding ground for crime.”
The Colorado Municipal League, which represents 270 cities and towns across the state, also opposed the bill. Cities and towns often contract with police officers to work in schools.
The municipal league wanted the section about misdemeanor crimes removed entirely from the bill. Meghan Dollar, the organization’s legislative advocacy manager, said students would have been immune to consequences on school property.
“If a student committed a crime, say, across the street and not on school property, then it’s enforceable from a municipal perspective,” Dollar said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to just do it on a location basis.”
Conservative talk radio hosts lambasted the bill on the air and in newspaper op-eds. On social media, teachers expressed concerns for their safety should it pass.
Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said state teachers union leaders had to spend a lot of time battling misinformation among their members about what the bill would and wouldn’t do. She had wanted to see changes to make sure schools had the resources to develop better practices, but she was disappointed to see the bill withdrawn.
“We are hopeful this is not an end to these conversations because this is something we need to address,” she said. “When you look at the statistics, they really paint a picture. We can’t just say we didn’t get to it this year, so we’ll let it go. It’s not OK that our students of color have higher rates of tickets and arrests in our schools.”
Advocates for reducing students’ contact with police argue that ticketing or arresting children causes lasting harm. Studies show students who are arrested or involved in the criminal justice system are less likely to graduate from high school.
“I think people are concerned with the ‘what ifs’ and they are overlooking the ‘what is,’” said Keri Smith, the deputy director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a Denver advocacy group that has been working for years to end the school-to-prison pipeline.
Jennifer Uebelher is a mother who was planning to testify in favor of Senate Bill 182. Her 11-year-old son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has had numerous interactions with police at school. Though he’s never been ticketed or arrested, Uebelher said the interactions have traumatized him and made him intensely fearful of police.
“We try to teach our kids that bad guys get the police called on them,” she said. “As a child, it’s like, ‘Well they’re here for me. I must be a bad guy. I must be one of those bad people.’”
Felicia Bolton also planned to testify in favor of the bill. A school resource officer called the police on her son when the boy, who has autism and other disabilities, had a meltdown at school that began when he refused to do some schoolwork.
Instead of following the process outlined in his special education plan to calm him down, Bolton said the police handcuffed her son to a chair. He was 11 years old at the time.
Both Bolton’s son and Uebelher’s son are Black. Bolton said she thinks race played a role in how the school responded to her son, who she said is big for his age.
Even though her son has a disability and a plan in place to help him, she said, “they seemed to gloss over that and looked at him like, ‘This big Black boy; let me call the police.’”
In their statement, the sponsors of Senate Bill 182 pointed out that most offenses for which students are referred to police are misdemeanors or low-level crimes.
“We’re not talking about felonies,” the sponsors said. “We’re talking about small things, like a kid having trouble at home who experiments with marijuana or tobacco, or a student with autism who struggles to calm down. We wrote SB21-182 to help move our state toward what we have heard law enforcement and school resource officers [say] all along — school districts and law enforcement should be partners … and tickets and arrests should be used as a last resort.”
Interactions between students and police in Colorado are tracked by two separate state agencies: the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.
School districts report to the Colorado Department of Education how many times students are referred to law enforcement by school principals, teachers, deans, or other school staff each year. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies report to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice the number of times students are ticketed or arrested by police.
Colorado students were referred to law enforcement more than 3,000 times in the 2019-20 school year, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That number was actually lower than in previous years — not necessarily because of any reform, but because the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home two months earlier than usual.
In the shortened 2019-20 school year, law enforcement agencies ticketed or arrested students nearly 5,000 times, according to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.
Marijuana was a major reason why. Marijuana violations accounted for 21% of the tickets and arrests experienced by Colorado students in 2019-20 and 22% of law enforcement referrals. Senate Bill 182 would have prevented schools from involving police in misdemeanor marijuana cases or in cases where students were found with marijuana paraphernalia.
The bill also would have exempted disorderly conduct and fighting cases from police involvement. Fighting and disorderly conduct cases — including saying offensive things or making offensive gestures — made up 17% of tickets and arrests, and 9% of referrals last year.
Alcohol violations, tobacco violations, trespassing, criminal mischief when the damage is less than $1,000, theft of things worth less than $300, gambling, misdemeanor menacing, interfering with school staff, or obstructing a police officer also would have been exempt.
The main sponsors of Senate Bill 182 said the intent was to “rebalance how we think about discipline in our schools so that they are a safe environment for all students.”
Gov. Jared Polis had supported the bill, even highlighting it in his State of the State address, and the sponsors considered a number of amendments in response to concerns. But in the end that wasn’t enough to overcome opposition.
In an email, a spokesperson said Polis respected the work of the sponsors and that Colorado schools need to prioritize restorative justice practices so that students don’t have unnecessary contact with law enforcement.
“This is an issue in our state, and the governor hopes that education and law enforcement leaders will continue working to find common ground and bring it back next year,” spokesperson Shelby Wieman said.
In an interview, Buckner said changing school discipline practices is “just a really tough topic.”
“There is no other legislation coming this year,” she said, addressing rumors that a modified school discipline bill might be in the works.
But in announcing they would pull their bill, Buckner and Herod still vowed to keep working on the issue: “We encourage schools and law enforcement to work with us to ensure that students are centered as we continue to work towards a safer, more equitable education system.”
Chalkbeat Colorado Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.