Panel: Strict school discipline should be scrapped

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Colorado lawmakers and police said Monday that strict disciplinary policies at schools created after the Columbine High School shootings should be scaled back or scrapped and that administrators should have more control over student punishment.

The state laws put in place after high-profile cases of youth violence have tied the hands of school administrators with zero-policy standard, said members of a panel looking at school discipline trends. In turn, the officials are left with no choice but to refer a high number of students to law enforcement for minor offenses that pose no threat to school safety, they said.

“Zero tolerance has outlived its shelf life and is often inappropriately and inconsistently applied,” John Jackson, the police chief for Greenwood Village, wrote in a memo by the panel. He suggested that officials come up with a better definition for what’s considered a “dangerous weapon” on school grounds.

The group was created by the state Legislature this year in part to determine whether policy changes were needed. In previous meetings, the panel has heard stories of an elementary school student who was arrested when he found a BB gun on a street and was seen playing with it at a school playground after classes ended. In another case, one student was suspended for bringing a wooden replica of a rifle to school.

Students have testified that they had heard of Colorado students facing criminal charges for accidentally hitting a teacher with a beanbag chair or swiping a stick of gum from a teacher’s purse.

State lawmakers on the panel say some of those strict policies were a result of the heightened alert and fear created by school violence, like the Columbine shootings, when two students killed 13 people and then themselves in 1999.

During the last decade, about 100,000 students in Colorado have been referred to police during the last decade, according to lawmakers. Panelists said that led to students being unnecessarily criminalized.

The panel will meet later this month to decide on any recommendations to propose in next year’s legislative session. The panel, which includes lawmakers, law enforcement, and community leaders, can only propose eight bills.

Kim Dvorchak, a criminal defense attorney and panel member, said school districts and school resource officers should develop guidelines to distinguish between school misconduct that can be handled by administrator and criminal offenses that should be referred to police.

She said that “absent a real and imminent threat” to students and teachers, administrators should have the power to handle the problem.