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Colorado lawmaker pushes for school arrest stats

By: Associated Press
April 23, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2014 at 7:55 pm

DENVER — A Colorado state senator says she'll be pushing law enforcement agencies to report statistics showing what happens when trouble at school leads to arrests, but police see the new requirement as just one more unfunded burden.

The Smart School Discipline Law, aimed at reducing the number of students suspended, expelled or sent to jail, requires police and sheriff's officers and district attorneys to file annual reports on how many police contacts with students lead to arrests and how many arrests lead to trials.

The first reports were due this past fall. As of Wednesday, only about 30 of the more than 150 police departments across the state had met the requirement. A few sheriff's departments also had filed, as had three district attorneys from among the state's 22 judicial districts.

"We were really disheartened at the level of participation in reporting by law enforcement," said Littleton Democrat Linda Newell, who co-sponsored the legislation passed in 2012. She said she will work with the state Department of Public Safety, where the reports are collected, to remind agencies of their legal obligation.

Failing to comply carries no punishment, and agencies received no extra funds to compile figures. John Jackson, a police chief and chairman of the legislative committee of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, says he knows of one officer who needed a full work week to compile the report. That can be a significant burden for some police departments, he said.

"If they can't do it, they can't do it," he said.

Denver attorney Maureen Cain, who advised the private advocacy group Padres y Jovenes Unidos and the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar on the discipline law, said an online instrument to help law enforcement agencies report their data has been created. But she said it started running only about a month before the deadline.

Cain said policymakers hoped to compile data over the first three years but might have to extend the reporting period another year. The numbers, she said, will help the state determine whether Colorado has reason to be concerned about a school-to-jail track.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama's justice and education departments advised school districts across the country that the burden of routine discipline fell on them, not police officers, and expressed concern about racial discrimination in school discipline.

The Colorado measure requires schools to implement mediation and counseling strategies aimed at keeping students out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The law's reporting requirement for schools dovetailed with data they already were collecting. Padres y Jovenes Unidos was able to use school district data for 2012-13 to document that black students were almost four times and Native American and Hispanic students around twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement authorities as white students.

Chief Jackson said the statistics the lawmakers want from law enforcement would help police departments determine whether they are doing their jobs efficiently and effectively.

His department, in Greenwood Village, filed a report in July that showed 91 officer contacts with students at schools over the previous year, for incidents such as theft and drug law violations. Though tickets were issued in many cases, only three arrests were recorded, one on a weapons charge, one for contempt, and one for assault.

The data-reporting requirement is crucial, said Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition.

"Any time you have to report data, you are more mindful of your policies and practices," she said.

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