Progress of a sort

Colorado lawmakers take one small step – but no more – to reduce youth suicide

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Lawmakers took a small step toward expanding suicide prevention efforts in Colorado schools before the end of the 2018 session.

A bipartisan bill that’s headed to the governor’s desk allocates $400,000 for small grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to schools to train staff in suicide prevention.

This modest yet hard-won bill is the only legislation this year that directly addresses the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24 in Colorado. When the session started, many people were still shaken by the news that an Aurora fifth-grader had taken her own life, news that came on the heels of several suicides by teenagers at suburban high schools.

Even as the state legislature made progress on other behavioral health bills, efforts to address youth suicide were thwarted by religious conservatives who see those efforts as impinging on parental rights. 

The grants bill is very similar to a bill that was voted down in a Senate committee early in the session, with a key difference. In the defeated bill, grants could also be used to train students to help their peers. In the later bill, the training is limited to adults.

The bill’s Senate sponsors, Republican Beth Martinez Humenik of Thornton and Democrat Nancy Todd of Aurora, say this was the compromise necessary to get the bill through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Both women have close personal experience with the suicide of young people and feel strongly that the state needs to do more. Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average. Young people in rural counties commit suicide at rates twice those of their urban and suburban counterparts.

“Children are often too afraid to tell people what’s going on,” Martinez Humenik said. “We have people who see them every day who can really spot when something has changed. I hope we’ll see a difference being made.”

The law calls for schools to train “all school personnel,” from front desk staff to custodians and lunchroom workers, on the warning signs of suicidal thought and how to connect people in crisis to services, as well as how to diffuse crisis situations.

“I am a firm believer in equipping all staff to raise awareness,” Todd said.

This issue gained new urgency for some with the death by suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis of Aurora, a fifth-grader at Sunrise Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District. Davis took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted on social media.

After hearing emotional testimony from Ashawnty’s family, lawmakers directed the Colorado Department of Education to develop and share a model anti-bullying policy. Though experts caution against drawing a direct link between bullying and suicide, legislators framed the bill at least in part as a response to the problem of children taking their own lives. The state already makes resources available to schools to carry out anti-bullying programs.

The same Republican-controlled Senate committee that voted down the first version of the grants bill also voted down a youth suicide prevention bill sponsored by state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, and state Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, that would have provided training to adults who regularly interact with children but wouldn’t typically have access to suicide prevention training, like camp counselors and recreation center staff. It also would have created a website to serve as a clearinghouse of mental health resources throughout Colorado, and – most significantly and controversially – it would have allowed children as young as 12 to get therapy without their parents’ consent. 

Even removing that last provision couldn’t save the bill.

Supporters of the grant program say it’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t address the next steps, once a child in crisis is identified as such.

As she voted for the training grant program in a House committee Tuesday, Michaelson Jenet asked: “What will you do when these kids need counseling? Because we have said time and again that we won’t allow that.”

Under current law, teenagers 15 and older can get counseling without parental consent, but not younger children. After the committee hearing, Michaelson Jenet, who has repeatedly tried and failed to expand access to counseling for middle school-aged children, said it was “amazing” that Colorado lawmakers passed a bill that puts suicide prevention resources in schools, but “humiliating and embarrassing that we can’t do more.”

Sometimes very young children have thoughts of harming themselves, she said, and they need help from a licensed therapist, not a school custodian, to get the services they need. Those therapists can also help children figure out how to talk to their parents, she said.

“Nobody wants to do anything with students,” she said. “There is this belief that we can fix this without touching the student.”

Michaelson Jenet said she hopes the grant program is a first step that opens the door to a more comprehensive approach in future legislative sessions.

“The more we talk about it, the more we desensitize it – in a good way,” she said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts for all age groups, as well as $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Grants to community-based organizations in some counties already focus on teenagers or work in schools, and some schools have their own suicide prevention programs. “Sources of Strength,” which identifies peer leaders and includes suicide prevention in a broader effort to improve school culture, is a popular curriculum in Colorado schools.

But until now, there hasn’t been a specific grant program for schools to train adults in suicide prevention. This new grant program will be available in all counties, with priority given to schools that haven’t had any prior training. School administrators will be able to select the training that feels right for their community.

Sarah Brummett, director of the Office of Suicide Prevention within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said training is “only one piece of the puzzle” and needs to work in conjunction with access to quality mental health care, which is lacking in many parts of the state, and changing community norms around talking about mental health and seeking help.

“Once schools start to get more support for carving out resources, hopefully they would move to the next level,” Brummett said. “Training is important, but operating alone, it’s not sufficient to meet the entire need.”

This story has been updated to reflect final approval in both chambers.


Resources

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

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

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

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

not so fast

Worried about enrollment, some Colorado school districts are suing to prevent cross-district busing

Haylen Orgunez, 14, hangs out the window of one of the new compressed natural gas buses as he poses for a group photo at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock, Colorado on November 16, 2016. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Six school districts and the associations that represent them are suing to stop a change to Colorado law that could increase access to school choice but that was approved under questionable circumstances.

The lawsuit filed this week in Denver District Court doesn’t deal with the merits of the policy but with the way it was enacted. In the last days of the 2018 legislative session, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, took language from a defeated bill related to school choice and transportation and attached it as an amendment to a bill dealing with educational barriers for foster youth.

In a signing statement, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the maneuver potentially violates the “single-subject rule,” which requires that each bill deal with a one topic clearly expressed in the title of the bill and that any amendments also relate to that subject. He predicted there could be a lawsuit over the issue, and two months later, here we are.

The plaintiffs in the case are the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the small Englewood and Sheridan school districts in south suburban Denver, the Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, the Monte Vista district in southwestern Colorado, the Poudre district based in Fort Collins, and the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in the state. Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and Poudre school board member Cathy Kipp also joined the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the “operations and finances” of the districts will be affected by legislation that was passed “in a manner and by a process expressly prohibited by the Colorado Constitution and in derogation of these plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected interests as stakeholders in the fairness, integrity, and transparency of the legislative processes employed by the Colorado General Assembly.”

“The bill was originally about foster care children,” said CASE executive director Lisa Escárcega. “And at the very end of the session, they rewrote the last part, and expanded it to all children. Those are the reasons why we’re filing the lawsuit.”

Hill called CASE’s position “a complete lie,” noting that that organization along with the school board association and the Sheridan and Englewood districts also opposed the standalone bill on which his amendment was based.

“Everything we vote on, we vote on the merits of the policy,” Hill said. “That’s what this is about for the unions and the districts. They don’t want kids to have the freedom to go across district lines.”

The foster youth bill seeks to make it easier for these students, who have some of the lowest graduation rates in the state, to finish high school by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Similar language appeared in a bill sponsored by Hill called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools.” Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

In 2015, Pueblo City Schools blocked the Pueblo 70 district from running buses through its jurisdiction to pick up some of the roughly 150 students who opted into the higher-performing district that primarily serves the surrounding county.

In opposing the original transportation provision, superintendents from Sheridan and Englewood raised the prospect of districts running busses through more affluent neighborhoods, siphoning off those students and the state funding that goes with them, while leaving poorer districts to educate those with the greatest needs.

Jeffco Public Schools is in a different position. In an email, Glass said his district might see net enrollment growth from this change, but he worries about the broader implications.

“We bring in approximately 3,000 more students than we lose to inter-district school choice and that trend would likely grow if this provision in the foster care bill comes to pass,” he wrote. “At issue for us is the violation of the single-subject element of the state constitution. This choice amendment would represent a seismic shift in education policy in the state. Such changes should be considered through open and transparent debate in the legislative process, not tucked in as a last minute amendment under another bill title.”

In an interview, Hill said the transportation provision was a necessary component of the foster youth bill because the state couldn’t simultaneously require that these students be transported back to their home schools while retaining the requirement to get consent from the district in which they now reside.

Hill never made this argument in committee. There was no discussion at all when the amendment was proposed and adopted, and advocates for the foster youth bill didn’t raise it as a concern. School districts already provide transportation to homeless youth who want to remain in their home schools under provisions in federal law, and foster youth are entitled to similar services. The transportation envisioned under the foster youth bill could also occur through rideshare services or by reimbursing foster parents for mileage, and nothing in state law prevents simply driving a student to school in another district.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the matter is litigated.

The lawsuit names Hickenlooper, Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and the State Board of Education as defendants because they oversee implementation of these laws. Representatives of the governor’s office and the state Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit. The State Board of Education did not take any position on the legislation in question when it was being debated at the Capitol.

The Attorney General’s Office is charged with defending the state from the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the attorney general declined to comment.

This article has been updated to include comment from Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and a response from the Attorney General’s Office.



Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.