Expulsion hearing officers would get more training under Colorado bill

Empty school hallway and door.

The hearing officers who decide whether to expel Colorado students who have broken school rules or state laws could soon have to undergo more training.

A bill that aims to give students some protections in the expulsion process cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday. House Bill 1291 received unanimous bipartisan approval from the House Education Committee.

The bill is a scaled back version of legislation that sponsors withdrew earlier this month after stiff opposition from school districts. The brief hearing and broad support for the new bill was in sharp contrast to how the more expansive version of the legislation was received.

“We started out trying to fundamentally change the way kids and families are treated in this process,” said bill sponsor state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez. “This bill is a starting point to create a more equitable process.”

To become law, the bill needs to move through the full House and the state Senate in the next two weeks. 

Democratic sponsors Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver and state Rep. Junie Joseph of Boulder fear that expulsion is overused in some school districts. They want students’ full circumstances, such as unaddressed learning disabilities and past traumatic experiences that can shape behavior, to be considered when school districts are taking the extreme step of removing a student from the classroom.

They also want to make sure students understand what they’re accused of and have the opportunity to review the evidence and defend themselves. 

The bill is backed by advocates for students with disabilities and children who have been involved in the criminal justice system, as well as Denver Public Schools. The Colorado Association of School Executives is registered as opposed in state lobbyist filings but did not testify against the bill. 

Attorney Elie Zwiebel with the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center told lawmakers that the youngest child he’s ever represented in an expulsion proceeding was 7 years old. He said he’s seen behavior as minor as throwing a pencil across a room toward a trash can cast as “assault with a deadly weapon” to make the case for expulsion. In another example, he said a student was expelled for giving his sibling, who attended the same school, a black eye in a fight that occurred at home. 

If the bill becomes law, it would require that hearing officers undergo training in applicable state and federal law, adolescent brain development, the effects of trauma, and recognizing the impacts of disabilities. Hearing officers may be independent contractors, or they could be a top administrator, an attorney for the district, or the superintendent.

For students with identified disabilities who are facing expulsion, the school district already must consider whether the behavior in question is related to the disability. That doesn’t always happen as it should, advocates said, but there are also cases where a student doesn’t have a formal IEP, but their history and behavior strongly suggest they have a disability. In other cases, students who aren’t getting the help they need in the classroom become intensely frustrated and act out. 

Advocates hope that more training will lead school districts to consider alternatives to expulsion in those cases.

The bill requires the Colorado Department of Education to develop the free training. School districts can also show that the training they already provide meets the same criteria. 

The bill also requires that parents and guardians receive information about the reason for an expulsion at least two days before a hearing and encourages school districts to consider alternative ways to address student behavior and safety concerns. 

The bill also clarifies the standard of proof in expulsion proceedings to say that school districts must demonstrate that it’s more likely than not that the offense occurred. 

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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