Post-Columbine school disciplinary policies that Colorado lawmakers say lead to mandatory expulsions for things like inadvertently having a butter knife in a backpack are facing an overhaul, under a proposal given preliminary approval Tuesday.
A legislative committee moved forward with a proposal that seeks to give education officials more discretion over expulsions and police referrals, which lawmakers say became more common after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, where two students killed 13 people and then themselves.
Committee members said zero-tolerance policies adopted during the last decade have tied the hands of school administrators, who are forced to expel students or involve law enforcement for minor infractions.
"I just think it's time to swing back to the middle of the pendulum. That's what I'm hoping we can communicate and drive that culture of reasonableness," said Sen. Linda Newell, a Littleton Democrat who will co-sponsor the bill if it's introduced when the Legislature meets in the spring.
A different committee of lawmakers needs to approve the bill next month before it is introduced.
About 100,000 students in Colorado have been referred to police during the last decade, said lawmakers, who this year created a panel to review school punishment trends to determine whether policy changes are warranted. The panel, made of up legislators, community leaders, and law enforcement, met during the summer and heard instances where students have been referred to police for bringing a wooden replica of a rifle to school or unintentionally hitting a teacher with a bean bag chair.
The proposed legislation would make expulsions mandatory only in cases of students bringing a firearm to school and would amend school discipline codes to distinguish minor infractions from violations that need police involvement. The proposal would also direct school boards to create discipline codes that limit suspensions and expulsions to cases where a student's conduct threatens school safety.
"We're beyond time to balance out the zero-tolerance policies that have over-criminalized the kids in Colorado," said B.J. Nikkel, a Republican from Larimer County set to co-sponsor the legislation.
Some of the committee members expressed concern about putting additional burdens on school boards because they will have to develop new disciplinary codes and consequences for infractions. Schools would also be required to keep track of the number of students who are arrested or given tickets, and how many of those cases result in criminal charges.
Republican Sen. Keith King, the only lawmaker to vote against the proposal, said it "must change dramatically for it to be usable for school districts in the state of Colorado.
"It is way too prescriptive," said King, the administrator of a Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a charter school where high school students can get an associate's degree.
Still, King said he agrees with the idea of eliminating restrictive zero-tolerance policies. He cited a case where he was forced to expel a student who brought an unloaded BB gun to school.
"I didn't want to expel him but I had to because of state law," he said.
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