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Bill of rights adopted for Colorado students involved in criminal justice system

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Bill of rights adopted for Colorado students involved in criminal justice system

Jun 24, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Lindsey Toomer
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Bill of rights adopted for Colorado students involved in criminal justice system
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The Generation Schools Network held a ceremonial bill signing for House Bill 24-1216, which establishes a bill of rights that schools must follow for K-12 students involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system. (Courtesy of Generation Schools Network)

Michelle Villanueva’s 16-year-old son, who has autism, was arrested when he was 11 for what she believes was disability-related behavior with a bully in school. Five years later, her son is just now getting back on track in school, she said. 

Villanueva didn’t know where to go or who to talk to when her son was arrested, and while he spent only a day in jail, his arrest has slowed his progress in school. Had she been connected to the right resources sooner, the transition back to school could have been smoother for her son, Villanueva said.

That’s what a new state law promises to provide.

House Bill 24-1216 establishes a bill of rights that schools must follow for K-12 students involved in the juvenile or criminal justice system. The bill outlines different paths those students can follow to get back into school, earn credit for school work they do while in the system, and work toward graduation. 

As soon as a student is released from custody, a school under the new law must contact their family within three days to begin conversations on the student’s return to school, and the student must be reenrolled within 10 business days. Students must also be evaluated for giftedness, and they must receive credit for coursework completed while they’re incarcerated and be set up with a graduation plan. 

Over the next year, a working group established by the bill will meet to determine specifics around the new policies and best practices. Schools will need to have the new requirements implemented by August 2025, ahead of the school year. 

House Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat, who sponsored the bill, said it affirms that “justice-engaged” students have the same rights as any other K-12 student. It also ensures the various state agencies that keep records on the same students communicate properly and share relevant data.  

“The state keeps track of kids in so many different ways, but the systems weren’t talking to each other,” Bacon said. “They were aware of each other, but they weren’t connected in a way to provide a continuum of support for kids.” 

Bill of rights adopted for Colorado students involved in criminal justice system
Colorado House Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat, speaks during a hearing on Feb. 15, 2024, at the Colorado Capitol in Denver. (Lindsey Toomer/Colorado Newsline)

Jose Silva, vice president of equity initiatives at Generation Schools Network, a Denver-based nonprofit that works to improve school environments, said his organization worked directly with a group of justice-engaged students to see what prevented those students from getting back into school and succeeding. They held community forums where students, families and school leaders talked about what they needed, recommendations that eventually led to the bill being introduced this spring. 

“They believe that these are kids that fall through the cracks, and that it is a better investment in getting them reconnected to school than having them drop out or just recidivating,” Bacon said about GSN. 

The bill also establishes a hotline that families and justice-engaged students can reach out to for support. Silva said the hotline will be the “game changer” in the bill, as it will not only help students already involved in the justice system, but it also can prevent other students from getting into trouble. He said people who contact the hotline with concerns or questions will be connected to the proper resources.

(The bill) reiterates our values that we have all proclaimed in these systems, but may not really be happening in reality.

– House Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon

Villanueva’s son was arrested after he was involved in a physical conflict with another student, she said. Her son is sensitive to touch and isn’t always verbal, and his response during the experience, which included repeatedly hitting his head and face on a seat back while handcuffed in a police car, resulted in injuries, she said.  

Villanueva said she had to pay bond to get her son out of custody. She checked him into a children’s hospital, where he stayed for nine days. A requirement of his bond was that he had to be in school, and she wasn’t sure how to proceed, given his hospital stay. She spoke with a variety of lawyers and advocates throughout the process, as she didn’t know who was the right person to talk to. She connected with an educational advocate — as would now be required by the new law. If she hadn’t, she isn’t sure how long her son would have been out of school.

“This bill builds clarity as far as, ‘Hey, if you’re engaged, you call this point of contact,’ and they’re responsible for getting you education,” Villanueva said. 

Villanueva said that had the policies in the new law been implemented when her son was arrested, she would have had better direction and a roadmap on how to work through the various processes. 

In the first year after the policies are implemented, Silva said as many as 22,000 students will receive additional support under the new requirements. He said the bill will have major economic benefits for the state if more of these students are able to graduate, pursue higher education and join the workforce, instead of costing the state money in corrections. 

“What I hope is that we partner together collectively as a coalition, as a state, and ensure due diligence and do right by these students, many of which ended up justice-engaged due to social situations, epigenetic trauma, and then we just toss them to the wayside,” Silva said. 

Silva said school district leaders can start to think about how they will implement the new bill of rights for justice-engaged students, but the working group will help them establish essential definitions and standard practices. Each school district will have to designate a staff member to be the primary point of contact for students involved in the criminal justice system within their district.

Valerie Mosley, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Education, said the department is still identifying a facilitator to support the working group, with updates anticipated later this summer. She said the department is working with the courts and the Colorado Department of Human Services to determine who will serve on the working group.

Bacon said kids have to go to school even while in custody, and if their school won’t accept the credits they earned while incarcerated, they’re more likely to drop out. She said the bill will lead to school districts not only reenrolling students, but providing the services and support they need to work toward success and avoid recidivism. 

“It reiterates our values that we have all proclaimed in these systems, but may not really be happening in reality,” Bacon said. “So we wanted to be sure that we’re doing what we said we’re supposed to be doing.”