Student aggression against teachers spurs Colorado lawmakers to find solutions

Empty school hallway and door.
House Bill 1320 would create a task force in part to investigate "incidents of aggressive student behaviors toward educators to inform solutions." (David Zalubowski / AP)

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Almost a third of Colorado teachers who took a recent teachers union survey said they had experienced physical abuse by a student in the past two years. A bill under consideration in the legislature aims to find solutions and stem teacher turnover.

“When I bring this bill up, every single person will then respond with, ‘Oh my gosh, this happened to my neighbor last week, this happened to my sister-in-law last week,’” State Rep. Meghan Lukens, a Steamboat Springs Democrat and former high school teacher, said during a hearing on the bill, of which she is co-sponsor.

“It’s crazy how many personal stories I’ve gotten from folks in the education space ever since I started talking more about this bill.”

House Bill 1320, which passed the House Education Committee March 18 a 7-4 vote, would create a task force to investigate those incidents and other topics, including the effects of special education staffing shortages and insufficient funding for student wraparound services. The task force would make recommendations for policy or law changes needed to improve teacher safety.

The same Colorado Education Association survey that spurred Lukens to co-sponsor the bill found that 58% of teachers who responded said they are considering leaving the profession in the near future, though the reasons varied. National surveys have found similar results.

But balancing teacher safety and student needs can be difficult, especially when a student’s trauma or disability is the reason for their behavior. Educators have said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental and behavioral health issues for many students and worsened already unsustainable special education caseloads.

In testifying for the bill, Kevin Vick, the CEA vice president, told a story about a pregnant teacher who he said was kicked in the stomach by a high school student “hard enough to cause bruising, but fortunately not hard enough to endanger the child.”

The teacher quit that very same day, Vick said. When a long-term substitute teacher took over, the same student beat the substitute with a metal water bottle, he said.

“I don’t blame the student,” Vick told state lawmakers. “He had a condition that manifested that.”

Vick said a diverse task force is needed to come up with solutions to what is a complex problem. Others, including Brandon Smith, a social worker in 27J Schools in Brighton, agreed.

“For years, my coworkers and I were told that being assaulted in various ways was part of the job and we signed up for — and we should know what we were getting into,” said Smith.

He spoke of a first grade student he said “would flood sinks, destroy walls, furniture, take their clothes off, pee, throw feces, play with electric sockets, [and] punch and kick” staff members. District staff tried to get the student into a private program that could better meet his needs, but Smith said they encountered long wait lists and hesitancy about accepting the child.

Erin Kane, the superintendent of the Douglas County School District, the third-largest in the state, was the only district leader to testify. Speaking in favor of the bill, she ticked off specifics: In a district with 8,500 staff members, Douglas County schools had 313 workers compensation incidents last school year related to student aggression against a teacher.

Kane said the incidents usually mean a staff member had to see a doctor or go to the emergency room. So far this school year, Kane said the district has had 269 claims.

“We need help,” said Kallie Leyba, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Colorado, which represents teachers in Douglas County.

“The kids are not all right. And the educators are not all right.”

The four Republicans on the House Education Committee voted against the bill. Several Republican lawmakers said they agreed that aggression against teachers is a problem, but they disagreed that a task force would help.

“Why are we not taking action instead of just a study?” said Rep. Anthony Hartsook, a Parker Republican.

Republican lawmakers also expressed concern about an amendment that said the task force could not recommend policies that would increase student discipline or result in more students being referred to law enforcement. The amendment passed on a party-line vote.

“If a student is beating up teachers, then what is the task force supposed to do about that scenario? What is their policy supposed to be if it doesn’t include discipline?” asked Rep. Don Wilson, a Monument Republican.

“Those solutions are going to be coming from our group of experts,” answered Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, a Glenwood Springs Democrat and one of the sponsors of the bill.

Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat, said her yes vote doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t be disciplined or even charged criminally, but represents the hope that the task force can come up with solutions that get at the root causes of unsafe behavior.

“We need right now to think of something different,” Bacon said.

The bill says the task force would be made up of:

  • The director of the state Office of School Safety.
  • Three teachers at district-run schools, representing urban, suburban, and rural districts.
  • Two school administrators employed at district-run schools.
  • One school leader or administrator of a charter school.
  • One charter school teacher.
  • Two education support professionals, including one who works with English learners.
  • One school support professional, such as a school psychologist or social worker, who understands neurological and developmental disorders such as autism.
  • A representative of an organization that works with low-income families in a school district where most students identify as students of color.
  • A representative of an organization that works with students with disabilities.
  • A student representing a community that is disproportionately impacted by school discipline.
  • A person who works for a nonprofit organization focused on school safety and training.
  • A certified restorative justice professional experienced in community-based juvenile restorative justice, which focuses on repairing harm rather than punishment.

The task force would meet at least four times this year and three times next year to come up with a final report and recommendations by June 30, 2025, the bill says.

Melanie Asmar is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Colorado. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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