mental health matters

Colorado lawmakers say yes to anti-bullying policies but no to suicide prevention efforts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

It was the suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis that prompted state Sen. Rhonda Fields to call on state education officials to develop better anti-bullying policies.

Ashawnty, a fifth-grade student at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. As Fields met with grieving constituents, she felt like she didn’t know enough to act.

“The issue is very complex, and I felt like I couldn’t move forward on some of the suggestions because I hadn’t done the research,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat. “If we really want to reduce incidents of bullying, it has to be tied to evidence-based practices and research so that schools know what works.”

Relatives of Ashawnty and of other children who had attempted suicide provided emotional testimony to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning. In a bipartisan, though not unanimous, vote, committee members advanced legislation that would require the Colorado Department of Education to research and write an anti-bullying policy that school districts could use as a model. A few hours later, the Senate’s “kill” committee, one to which members of Republican leadership send bills they don’t want to get a full vote, rejected a separate bill that would have provided grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to school districts to help train teachers, students, and others in effective suicide prevention.

“You vote for anti-bullying policies, you vote for $7 million for interoperable radios, and you can’t support suicide prevention,” said an angry state Sen. Nancy Todd in the hallway after the vote. Todd, an Aurora Democrat, was a sponsor of the suicide prevention bill, and she and state Sen. Owen Hill both serve on the education committee. Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, also serves on State Affairs and voted yes on the anti-bullying bill and no on the suicide prevention bill.

Ashawnty Davis was the youngest of a series of children to die by suicide last year, and before the session started, lawmakers pledged to provide more support to schools and students.

Experts caution against drawing a direct line between bullying and suicide. Studies have found that children who are bullied – as well as children who engage in bullying – are at higher risk of harming themselves, but most children who are bullied don’t try to take their own lives. There are often multiple factors involved.

Nonetheless, the testimony heard by the Senate Education Committee focused on preventing bullying as a way to prevent suicide.

Kristy Arellano, whose daughter suffered a severe brain injury in a suicide attempt that occurred after being bullied, said neither she nor her daughter’s teachers had the tools they needed.

“We need to arm our schools and their faculty with the tools for how to stop bullying,” she said. “I think my daughter just didn’t know how to deal with the hateful things that were said to her, and I didn’t know how to help her either.”

Trembling as he described his family’s loss, Dedrick Harris, Ashawnty’s uncle, said passing this legislation and putting better anti-bullying policies in place would give some meaning to his niece’s death.

“My niece became a statistic,” he said. “I support this because it’s all I can do.”

Dew Walker, a family preservation specialist and grief counselor based in Denver, said current policies aren’t helping children, and they can feel like they have no way out.

“I’m here because there are children who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They reported their bullying, but they felt like nothing was being done. They didn’t report it to the right people, or they just weren’t that important. They go silent. They wear a mask. And they know about zero tolerance, and they worry that if they defend themselves, they’ll be in trouble, not the bully.”

The anti-bullying bill was co-sponsored by Fields and state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican who, back when he was still a representative in the state House, sponsored the 2011 legislation that created the Department of Education’s current bullying prevention program.

School districts are required to have anti-bullying policies that meet certain criteria, and the department makes resources and information about best practices available on its website.

The department also has provided $4.1 million in grants from marijuana tax money to 73 schools to develop anti-bullying programs.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said that because so many other states have developed model policies, she believes the work can be done without needing additional resources and may be of value to school districts.

“We know that other states have seen this as valuable,” she said.

While Colsman said she isn’t qualified to talk about the link between bullying and suicide, “the concerns of children committing suicide are something that we all need to be thinking about.”

The suicide prevention bill would have made grants available for up to 25 interested school districts, public schools, or charter schools each year at a cost of roughly $300,000. Todd said that it was her intention that the bulk of the money come from gifts, donations, and grants, though the bill language also allowed for a general fund appropriation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment already gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts, as well as a $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties, according to a fiscal analysis. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Todd’s bill would have made money available specifically to schools in all parts of the state.

Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.

The bill would have allowed schools to design their own programs, and the grant money could have been used for training for parents and teachers, to help students recognize warning signs in their peers and know how to respond, and for the development of curriculum and educational materials.

In voting no, Hill cited concerns about how the grant program would be paid for, while state Sen. Vicki Marble, the Fort Collins Republican who chairs the State Affairs committee, said it sounded like a government solution to a family and community problem.

“Our children have a respect problem,” she said. “They aren’t what they used to be.”

Marble said she knows the guilt that survivors carry because 10 members of her extended family have taken their own lives.

“Government is not the answer,” she said. “What I see in this bill is the same bureaucracy of reports and advisory groups and grants and money, but no solutions.”


Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.


Carrots and sticks

No pizza parties, no raffle tickets: Bill would bar Colorado schools from offering rewards to test-takers

Students in the Sheridan School District practice for the 2015 PARCC tests (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post).

Update: This bill was amended to remove the penalties and received unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 14.

It’s already illegal in Colorado for schools to penalize students who don’t take state assessments. Now a bill before the legislature would make it illegal to reward students who take the tests and would penalize schools who offer such incentives.

“The school can’t say you can’t play on the team or go on the field trip,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, who opted to keep his own sons from taking state assessments. “This bill addresses something that’s come up recently: If you take the assessment, you get to go to the party or go on the field trip or maybe even get to play on the sports team. It’s the same message, but the other way around.”

That’s just as wrong, said Holbert, a Republican from Parker who sponsored the bill with state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat.

Kerr is a teacher who serves on his school’s accountability committee, and he said another teacher raised this idea – supposedly used at a different school – as they discussed how to get more students to take the tests.

“We know that we can’t do negative consequences, but at this school, every student who takes the test gets a raffle ticket and the winner of the raffle gets a widescreen TV,” Kerr said. “This was given as an example of a positive reinforcement to take the test.”

The widescreen TV in this example was donated; no taxpayer dollars went to reward test-taking and the luck of the draw.

Under the bill, schools could still have parties after testing is over, but they couldn’t exclude students who didn’t take the tests.

Colorado has been at the center of the opt-out movement nationally, and its partisans include people on the left and the right – students in conservative Douglas County as well as liberal Boulder County. How Colorado handles accountability for schools with high opt-out rates has been a point of contention with the federal government.

The State Board of Education has a policy that the state won’t lower the quality rating of schools who miss the 95 percent participation mark, while the federal Department of Education wants those students counted as “not proficient.” In a compromise, Colorado agreed to keep two lists of schools, one that complies with state law and one that complies with federal law, but Colorado is still waiting for approval from the federal government of its Every Student Succeeds Act plan.

Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said his organization doesn’t have a position on the bill, but he does have a few questions: “Who are the bad actors?” and “Does this need to be a law?”

“I don’t want to pick on anybody in particular,” Holbert said, declining to name any schools or districts. He characterized the problem as “more than one, but not widespread.”

The Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the State Board of Education all support the idea behind the bill.

“We certainly believe students who have the family discussion to not take the test should not have any inappropriate hook dangled before them,” Nate Golich, director of government affairs for the teachers union, told the Senate Education Committee. “They should not feel stigmatized or ostracized because there’s a pizza party or a granola bar or orange slices.”

But there is a point of dispute: how to enforce such a law.

The original version of the bill calls for the Colorado Department of Education to make a note in the performance report of any schools found in violation, and to “impose a significant penalty” on the accreditation rating of any school that violates the law three or more times in a year.

Dana Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said that provision would be difficult to enforce. The department collects a lot of data, but it doesn’t know which schools hold pizza parties for kids who take state assessments. Doing enforcement on a complaint basis could create an unfair situation in that schools whose parents complain are punished while schools with the same practices whose parents don’t complain go unpunished.

Lisa Escárcega, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, called docking a school’s rating over this issue “using the jaws of life to go after a minnow.”

“We would not want a school to lose an entire accreditation point if three people call CDE,” Golich said.

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony about the bill Thursday but postponed a vote.

Holbert and Kerr said they’re open to removing the penalty, but that raises the question of what the law even means.

“What happens if we pass a bill that has no particular penalty or enforcement mechanism and parents are frustrated because they’re seeing these consequences?” asked state Sen. Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican.

money matters

Colorado’s superintendents want (a lot) more money for schools and a new way to divvy it up

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Patyn Hooper, right, and Rowan LaPiano compare their reporting videos during class at Mammoth Heights Elementary School in Parker, Colorado.

Colorado’s superintendents want to change how the state distributes money to school districts – but only if voters are willing to approve a $1.7 billion tax increase for education.

The new formula would give more money to school districts whose students have more needs, but without more money in the pot, many districts would actually lose funding. Hence, the need for a lot more money.

Voters have twice rejected statewide tax increases to fund education, most recently in 2013, but supporters of this new funding model say this time is different. This November, voters approved local tax increases in districts that had previously struggled to raise money, raising hopes that the political climate is shifting. And unlike previous attempts, people who want more money for schools have the backing of local school leaders who will be able to say exactly how a statewide tax increase would benefit students in their districts.

“We have a unique opportunity in that people who have deep knowledge of our schools, this diverse group of superintendents, have reached a consensus that we haven’t seen before,” said state Rep. Dave Young, a Greeley Democrat who has sponsored a bill to enact the formula change pending voter approval of a tax increase.

Young added: “It would be a real mistake at a time when our economy is doing well and we have this sort of collaboration to miss this opportunity to respond to the needs of our students.”

Lawmakers who oppose tax increases look at the large dollar amount attached to this proposal and don’t see much to talk about.

“We probably have more interest in drinking month-old milk than we do to revisit an issue that voters already said, by a margin of 2 to 1, ‘We don’t want to go down this path,’” said state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

This proposal lands in a complicated political environment. A bipartisan committee has been meeting to talk about school finance issues, but they’re months away from proposing legislation. Some state officials, including the governor, are more focused on a looming crisis provoked by a constitutional provision that reduces local tax revenue in rural districts. Republicans, meanwhile, have their eye on a transportation bond proposal.

The superintendents who brought this proposal forward have two goals in mind: “equity” and “adequacy.” Equity is how the school funding pie gets divided fairly among districts, and adequacy is the size of the pie.

The proposal calls for a “student-centered” distribution model to replace the state’s school finance formula created in 1994. At its most basic, this approach gives districts and schools more money for students who have more needs, whether that’s learning English or being gifted and talented or both.

This is a national trend in school funding that’s more common at the district level. Denver Public Schools already distributes money within the district using this approach, as does Indianapolis and New York City. The U.S. Department of Education recently invited districts to apply for a “weighted student funding” pilot program that would attach more money to students with more needs and have that money follow students wherever they go. 

Colorado’s current funding model already gives schools more money if they have more students who qualify for free lunch, a proxy for poverty. The state formula also includes factors like cost of living and personnel costs. Money for students with disabilities, students who are gifted and talented, and students who are learning English is in a separate pot and isn’t distributed as part of per-pupil funding.

In examining funding for specific populations, analysts with the Education Commission of the States wrote that so-called “formula funding” – what the superintendents are proposing – provides more equity and predictability for school districts, while keeping money for students with particular needs in a separate fund gives the state more control over how that money is spent but is less stable. In Colorado, that second pot of money for students with additional needs gets larger with inflation, but it doesn’t get larger to account for more students with those needs.

That’s a key difference, superintendents say, between their proposal and the status quo. Their proposal would account for those additional student needs within the per-pupil funding formula. In addition, districts that provide full-day kindergarten would get an entire student’s worth of money for each kindergartner, instead of a little more than half a student’s worth, as they do now. School leaders say this approach is fairer and better reflects the real costs to educate students.

Colorado schools are serving more students and a more diverse student population than they were in 1994, said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, and they’re more accountable for educating those students to the same level as their classmates.

“If you could go back in time and take a snapshot of what students looked like in Colorado in 1994 and what schools looked like and what accountability systems looked like and compare them to now, the world of K-12 is so exponentially different from the world of K-12 in 1994, it’s even hard to draw these direct comparisons,” Cooper said. The School Finance Act has “outlived its usefulness. And it’s not even fully funded.”

In 2000, Colorado voters decreed that per-pupil funding should increase by inflation each year. But the amendment they passed didn’t provide any new money for education. During the Great Recession, lawmakers started applying a “negative factor” or “budget stabilization factor” to reduce the amount by which they funded schools. This year, Colorado schools are getting $6.6 billion in state and local funds – $828 million less than they would if voters’ demands were fully realized. Colorado consistently ranks as one of the lowest states in per-pupil funding.

Cooper said the group working on this proposal started from an assumption that no district should lose money, and if you divide $6.6 billion using the new formula, a lot of districts lose money. To get to a point where no districts are losing money and many are getting more money – in some cases as much as 50 percent more – total annual spending on K-12 education needs be closer to $8.4 billion.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increases. Either the legislature or private citizens’ groups can place these requests on the ballot, but a tax increase for schools is very unlikely to come from the General Assembly. Republicans have said that transportation, not education, is their top spending priority, and even a roads bill sponsored by the Republican senate president couldn’t get out of a Republican-controlled committee last session because it involved a tax increase. This year, Republicans want to ask voters to approve new debt for road construction without a tax increase.

That leaves private citizens to get something on the ballot. State elections officials have signed off on language for eight potential tax measures that would raise between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion, each with a slightly different funding mechanism. Supporters of those measures still need to decide which version they’ll pursue.

“The $64,000 question is what is the tax policy and the mechanism that actually generates the revenue,” Cooper said.

Great Education Colorado, which is consulting with the supporters of the ballot measure, sent out an email praising the superintendents’ proposal and Young’s bill as “step one of what we’re calling ‘the Colorado Two Step.’”

“First we establish how new dollars would be fairly distributed,” Great Education Executive Director Lisa Weil wrote. “Then we give voters a chance to do right by kids.”  

Young said Colorado’s school funding situation is dire, and change can’t wait. He’s found a Republican co-sponsor, state Sen. Don Coram of Montrose. Within his caucus, Coram is a moderate on fiscal issues, and his name alone won’t get this bill through Senate committees hostile to the idea of raising taxes. Young said he hopes to find support among rural Republicans, similar to the support they gave to last year’s compromise on a hospital fee with major implications for their districts. And the bill itself does not ask for a tax increase to be placed on the ballot, only that the funding formula be changed if voters approve more money.

Even sympathetic Democrats aren’t sure this is the right approach, though.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said that when it comes to schools, his top priority is getting closer to full funding under the existing formula and dealing with an impending crisis caused by the Gallagher Amendment. That provision in the state constitution caps the share of property taxes paid by residential property owners. As property values have skyrocketed along the Front Range, residential tax rates have ratcheted down, and that’s led to drastic cuts in rural communities with smaller tax bases.

Some state officials would like to change the Gallagher Amendment, but figuring out which change will be acceptable to voters and then selling it is no easy task. That task doesn’t get any easier if it’s sharing the ballot with a transportation bond measure and a tax increase for schools.

“That’s my first priority: What would the voters be willing to consider in terms of changing the Gallagher Amendment so that it stops squeezing rural communities?” Hickenlooper said. “A billion and a half in revenue, I’m not sure what it would take to generate that.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have been meeting to look at changing how the state funds its schools. The interim school finance committee spent the off-season gathering information, and its members hope to propose legislation for the 2019 Colorado General Assembly.

Hill, the Republican senator, is vice-chair of that committee, and he said the superintendents’ proposal – “just to fly in with a magic bullet” – undermines the effort to come up with bipartisan solutions.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat and the committee chair, said that if Young’s proposal made it into law and if voters approved a major tax increase, he’d have to ask the members of the committee if it makes sense to keep meeting.

Cooper said the superintendents started meeting on their own, informally at first, before the interim committee was even conceived, and they confined their efforts to a narrow focus: how money is distributed to districts. There are still plenty of questions for the committee to work on, including how costs are shared between the state and local districts, another major inequity in Colorado.

Cooper said major policy changes take time, and this one is important.

“If we fall short this year, regardless of how far we make it, we’re further ahead than if we had not gone forward, and we’ll be back next time,” he said. “We will not be easily dissuaded.”