There was a major loss this week in the fight for racial justice in Colorado. Senate Bill 182, which sought to address the devastating systemic racism within school discipline and school policing, was defeated by a collection of law enforcement leaders, school administrators, conservative talk radio listeners, and Nextdoor enthusiasts. Through both traditional lobbying efforts and the inundation of legislators with misinformed, vitriolic, racist, and even threatening emails, this collection of opponents fought with remarkable passion to ensure that K-12 students can continue to be thrust into the juvenile and criminal justice systems for disciplinary infractions as minor as smoking cigarettes on school campuses.
These efforts were a direct affront to the thousands of Colorado families who are needlessly harmed by the school-to-prison pipeline each year. Indeed, the system they were defending has, over the past six years, resulted in at least 38,295 police tickets and arrests of K-12 students within Colorado public schools, the vast majority of which were for low-level behaviors that should have been addressed by school personnel. Consistent with historical inequities, the majority of these tickets, arrests, and suspensions were of students of color and students with disabilities, with Black students being introduced to the criminal and juvenile justice systems directly by their schools at three times the rate of their white peers.
It is also worth stressing that the individuals we are so quick to criminalize are children and youth. For example, 25,913 (68%) of the arrests and tickets were of students ages 15 and under, 10,692 (28%) of them were of students age 13 and younger, and 1,739 were of students age 11 and younger.
The vigorous opposition to Senate Bill 182’s attempt to address these issues raises a number of questions, with perhaps the most important being this: Why do we continue to allow law enforcement officials to dictate criminal justice policies?
When it comes to how criminal justice policy decisions are made, in Colorado and throughout the U.S., the tail usually wags the dog. Instead of the public deciding how police and prosecutors should be enforcing the law to best meet community needs and advance community priorities, it is often law enforcement officials who decide how they will be enforcing the law against the public. Plus, police and prosecutors are granted enormous power to actually make the law.
This might strike many people as odd. You might think that the role of law enforcement is to do just that: enforce the laws that the rest of us come up with. You might also think that while legislators would understandably rely to a certain extent on law enforcement to provide advice on criminal justice policy issues, the police and prosecutors would not be engaged in advocacy around those issues. However, you would unfortunately be wrong on both counts. The reality is that law enforcement groups have become a major political force that is both extremely active in making policy and extremely protective of their power and budgets.
In fact, when it comes to criminal justice policy issues, law enforcement groups are often far and away the most impactful voices — exponentially more influential than any ordinary citizens who will be the ones subjected to the failed “tough-on-crime” policies they consistently advocate.
One of the most destructive outcomes of this gross distortion of the political process is that Black and Brown K-12 students in the U.S. may now be the most heavily policed people in the world. Think about it: many of our children spend seven hours a day, 180 days per year, without ever being further than 150 yards from a police officer, so that all of their youthful mistakes can be considered crimes. Where else does anyone face that level of consistent law enforcement surveillance and scrutiny? Certainly not in the predominantly white suburban communities where many of Senate Bill 182’s most vehement opponents reside.
Each one of our children deserves a healthy, nurturing, and equitable learning environment. They deserve to feel welcomed, valued, and respected in their schools. They deserve schools that are centered around meeting the full range of their development needs. However, in Colorado, far too many of our young people instead attend schools that are better equipped to criminalize them than they are to address their most urgent needs. For example, in 2017-18, 120,082 K-12 students in Colorado attended schools with police but no school psychologist, 148,064 attended schools with police but no school social worker, and 210,073 attended schools with police but no school nurse. As a result, our schools, which should be joyous places for learning and exploration, too often serve as a feeder system for our jails and prison.
Make no mistake: the fight to dismantle Colorado’s school-to-prison pipeline will continue. Our communities will press on. Indeed, for the sake of our children, we don’t have any other choice. And hopefully, for the next battle, there will be many more people advocating passionately for the interests of young people, and many fewer who choose to spend their energy upholding systemic racism.
Elsa Bañuelos is the executive director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos and the mother of a 3rd-grader in Denver Public Schools.