Our view: Lawmakers to address flaws in School Discipline Act revealed in North Forty investigation

Victories sometimes seem few and far between as we sit behind our small desk in our small newspaper office located in a small Colorado town.

Last April the North Forty News ran several stories detailing the deficiencies of the 2012 School Discipline Act, a law that required law enforcement and district attorneys to submit statistics every Aug. 1 on crimes committed in Colorado schools.

As state officials have finally realized, data submitted to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice on crimes committed in schools is not standardized and not complete.

So much so that Colorado lawmakers are looking to revisit the law in this legislative session and introduce measures that, according to the Denver Post, “would offer more transparent reporting on school violence and discipline while curbing the number of students who end up in the criminal justice system for minor offenses.”

We showed in our investigation that just three of Colorado’s 22 district attorneys submitted the required data due in 2013, which covered the 2012 school year. And just 27 out of 130 police agencies even bothered.

Fort Collins Police Services submitted their data due in 2013 in a timely manner. After missing the Aug. 1 deadline for submitting data due in 2014, the North Forty News alerted Fort Collins Police Services about their oversight. The Fort Collins report was submitted to the Division of Criminal Justice in September, with a letter explaining why they missed the deadline. Things got dropped due to staff changes, they said.

Larimer County Sheriff’s Office did not submit the report that was due in 2013. The department interpreted the law as requiring reports starting in 2014. LCSO’s 2014 report was submitted on time, but the report does not comply with the law. The 2014 LCSO report shows school-related arrests and summonses in the 10 schools that they oversee, but the data doesn’t include the number of students investigated for delinquent offenses and the type of offenses they committed. In other words, every contact that a deputy had with a student that involved an investigation — not just arrests or citations — needed to be tracked and reported to the state. It wasn’t.

Timnath PD submitted reports for both years on time, while Berthoud PD submitted a report in 2013 but not in 2014. A total of 60 of 130 police agencies submitted data due in 2014. At least there’s an upward trend.

Then there’s the data that the state’s 22 district attorneys are required to submit. In our initial report, we found that the Larimer County District Attorney (Eighth Judicial District) hadn’t submitted data due in 2013 because they didn’t know about the law. They did submit data due in 2014 on time.

North Forty News called the Boulder District Attorney and the Weld County District Attorney in September, 2014 and asked why they hadn’t submitted any reports in either 2013 or 2014. Both said that their submissions were “overlooked,” and both had reports into the state by late October.

But just five of the state’s 22 DAs bothered to submit school crime data due in 2014, and three of those five complied because the North Forty News informed them that they needed to.

We also illustrated in our April, 2014 investigations that it’s very difficult to obtain detailed information on school crime. School districts submit their own, separate school crime reports to the Colorado Department of Education, but those reports provide only a general overview of about 12 criminal offense categories. If a student brings a gun to school, the school district’s statistics show that. But, unless the student harms someone by discharging the gun, there’s no way for parents to garner specifics — from the district or from law enforcement.

At the time, both the Fort Collins Police Services and the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office argued that state law prevented them from releasing details of violent and weapons-related incidents in schools. Experts we spoke to said the opposite — that law enforcement could and should be more transparent about school crime.

Thankfully, state lawmakers have finally noticed, agree with us, and are looking to lift the veil of secrecy.

But regardless of improvements to the School Discipline Act or school district crime reporting requirements, the key question will be whether the state’s district attorneys will comply or will continue to not give a hoot.

And if many law enforcement agencies and almost all of the state’s top prosecutors aren’t following the state’s laws, why should anyone else?

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