Columbine effect 12 years later: Are schools and cops going too far in prosecuting juveniles?

Categories: News, Politics

evie hudak.jpg
Evie Hudak
In the dozen years since the Columbine shootings, school officials have become hypervigilant about potential troublemakers in their midst -- so hyper, in fact, that state lawmakers are now seeking a formal review of school disciplinary procedures to determine if principals are too quick to involve police and the juvenile justice system in minor misconduct issues.

The concern is the latest development in a raging debate over how Colorado deals with juvenile offenders in a wide spectrum of crimes, ranging from the 12-year-old in Burlington charged with killing his parents (and possibly facing trial as an adult) to the uproar over the arrest of an 11-year-old for a "threatening" stick-figure drawing.

This week's cover story, "Playing With Fire," examines another aspect of the throw-the-book-at-'em phenomenon: two cases in the Eighteenth Judicial District (Douglas and Arapahoe County) of young boys who faced felony arson charges for what appear to have been accidental fires. The cases led to different outcomes but similar complaints from the boys' parents and their attorneys of prosecutorial overkill.

Senate Bill 133, sponsored by Democrats Evie Hudak and Linda Newell, deals with less serious infractions of school disciplinary codes, such as roughhousing or disruptive behavior in class. "The same behavior that used to result in a trip to the principal's office now leads to an arrest and a trip to juvenile court," Hudak noted at a press conference at the Capitol yesterday.

Supporters of the bill say that the post-Columbine atmosphere has, over the past decade, produced close to 100,000 referrals to law enforcement for school conduct issues across the state. Minority students are far more likely to face serious disciplinary action as whites, they claim, for crimes as trivial as wearing a flashy belt (suspected gang activity) to taunting (misdemeanor unlawful sexual harassment).

While more serious drug, assault or theft cases should be prosecuted, many of the referrals are overkill, contends Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett, who was a school board president at the time of the Columbine tragedy. "Educators have overreacted and over-referred school problems to the justice system," he said.

SB 133 calls for a year-long state study of school use of suspensions and law enforcement involvement that would produce recommendations for next year's legislative session. At the moment, though, the bill is still in committee as lawmakers fret over the projected cost of the review -- almost $200,000 -- in an era of budget hacking.

But backers contend that keeping minor behavior issues in house and relying more on a "restorative justice" approach, now used in limited fashion in the Denver Public Schools and some other districts to resolve some conflicts, could end up saving a great deal more.

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We certainly witnessed for ourselves the wide range of reactions to the case of the 11 year old arrested for his stick man drawing.

This is a no win situation, every time. If the authorities move on a possible/perceived threat, they're overreacting. If the principal doesn't refer up the chain and something bad happens any time afterward, then his/her head goes in the vice.

If, and this is huge, if we can explain and teach consequences to our kids at home we're ahead of the game. If our kids go to school with a clear understanding of what's acceptable behavior and what's not, we give ourselves an opportunity to raise decent children into productive adults.

That in mind, what happens when your kid plays by the rules, behaves in a decent manner, shows respect to other kids, knows the boundaries, and just does his or her job.........and is the target of mean spirited bullies and other malfunctioning children who behave abominably for whatever reasons?

Unfortunately, there's no law against "being an asshole". You can't legislate every possible scenario. In my opinion, instilling confidence, teaching parameters, giving our children the physical tools, the ability to defend themselves, and leading by compassionate example gives us a chance.

When other parents don't parent, and abdicate their responsibilities or even teach by mean spirited example, their kids will and do bring that attitude to school. Problems are guaranteed. Fights, bullying, and general harassment are present and unavoidable. We expect our kids to defend themselves, stick up for others who can't and to be leaders. And when they step up and set themselves up to be reprimanded?

That leaves the school, the teachers, the administration, the authorities to make decisions that are guaranteed to be at best controversial, and you don't even want to ponder the other alternative. Like I said earlier, it's a no win situation.

Maybe part of the solution lies in our kids being taught to take advantage of their abilities and capabilities, and giving off a self confident approach that deters wannabe predators.

Easier said than done. It's every day, and it's being involved probably more than any kid wants us to be. To our kids, what we consider our basic job, our responsibility, is "lecturing" and meddling".


I know one thing, bullies never look for fights. They only look for victims. And none of us want our kids to be victims.


This is all about teaching the kids to live in a fascist police state.

Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts

Another interesting post, Eric, and one definitely deserving of Comment of the Day status. Congrats.

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