DENVER – Young students in Colorado schools can face ticketing or charges for scrawling doodles on a desk, accidentally hitting a teacher with a beanbag chair, or swiping a stick of gum from a teacher's purse.
That's what a group of high schools students told a state legislative panel Wednesday examining Colorado's strict disciplinary policies, many of which were implemented in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and other high-profile cases of youth violence.
"We are here because we believe schools can be safe without criminalizing students for minor misbehaviors," said Brandon Wagoner, 17, who was among the group of students who stood in a semi-circle in front of the panelists as each read them details of the cases.
Republican Rep. B.J. Nikkel, a member of the panel, said zero-tolerance policies have led to the "over-criminalization" of students and that law enforcement sometimes feels shackled because they're left with little discretion on how to deal with problem students.
But Colorado isn't alone in looking at current policies.
Seema Ahmad, a staff attorney at a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group called Advancement Project, said other states have also begun to re-examine school discipline.
In Florida, legislators approved a law that requires school boards to create guidelines with law enforcement to distinguish between minor and serious offenses to allow for disciplinary discretion, she said. Ahmad said North Carolina also passed a law requiring school districts to examine a student's intent and disciplinary history before deciding on a punishment.
Texas has introduced legislation like Colorado to create a task force to look at school discipline, Ahmad said.
Ahmad said about 3.3 million students were suspended at least once nationally, according U.S. Department of Justice figures from 2006, the latest available data. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, Ahmad said.
Wagoner said the detailed Colorado cases were a synopsis of some school punishment in the state this year that has caught the attention of the group he belongs to, Parents and Youth United, which is pushing for policy changes.
The 11-year-old student in the Colorado beanbag case, who was goofing around swinging the chair, was cited with harassment and a third-degree assault charge, the group of students said. The eight-grade student who scrawled on his desk got a municipal ticket for graffiti and the 10-year-old boy who took gum from his teacher was charged with misdemeanor theft, the students said.
"We do want to make sure that criminals are punished, and indeed they will be. We're simply seeking balance," Nikkel said about its mission to analyze the Colorado's disciplinary policies, part of a national trend to review school punishment.
Colorado lawmakers created the panel this year, including law enforcement and community representatives. Wednesday was the first of several meetings before the group develops ideas for legislation by October. At the panel's next hearing in August, they plan to hear testimony from victims and law enforcement.
Lawmakers said about 100,000 students in Colorado have been referred to police during the last decade after getting in trouble in school, sometimes for fighting or bringing a toy gun to school.
Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak cited the case this year of a 10-year-old Colorado boy who was arrested after finding a BB gun on a street and playing with it at a school playground after classes ended. The boy's mother told the Boulder Daily Camera that her son was playing cops with other boys and not threatening anyone.
Jonathan Senft, a staffer with Colorado's Legislative Council, told the panel that zero-tolerance policies are meant to target serious offense, such as bringing a firearm to school, but sometimes there are unintended consequences. He said in one instance, a Colorado student was suspended for bringing a wooden replica of a rifle to school. Nationally, students have gotten suspended for having nail clippers or scissors, he said.
The Colorado panel plans to also study disciplinary trends among races.
Democratic Sen. Linda Newell, who lives about a mile from Columbine High School, where two students killed 13 people and then themselves, said she's aware of parents' concerns about their children's safety. But she said she also wants the panel to look at ways to change what she calls a "regimented" system.
Stan Garnett, the top prosecutor in Boulder County, said he worries about what children take away from their early experiences with law enforcement.
"One of the concerns I've had is that I think zero-tolerance often teaches kids that authority makes no sense," he said.
Ivan Moreno can be reached at https://twitter.com/IvanJournalist