Columbine effect 12 years later: Are schools and cops going too far in prosecuting juveniles?

In the dozen years since the Columbine shootings, school officials have become hypervigilant about potential troublemakers in their midst -- so hyper, in fact, that state lawmakers are now seeking a formal review of school disciplinary procedures to determine if principals are too quick to involve police and the juvenile justice system in minor misconduct issues.

The concern is the latest development in a raging debate over how Colorado deals with juvenile offenders in a wide spectrum of crimes, ranging from the 12-year-old in Burlington charged with killing his parents (and possibly facing trial as an adult) to the uproar over the arrest of an 11-year-old for a "threatening" stick-figure drawing.

This week's cover story, "Playing With Fire," examines another aspect of the throw-the-book-at-'em phenomenon: two cases in the Eighteenth Judicial District (Douglas and Arapahoe County) of young boys who faced felony arson charges for what appear to have been accidental fires. The cases led to different outcomes but similar complaints from the boys' parents and their attorneys of prosecutorial overkill.

Senate Bill 133, sponsored by Democrats Evie Hudak and Linda Newell, deals with less serious infractions of school disciplinary codes, such as roughhousing or disruptive behavior in class. "The same behavior that used to result in a trip to the principal's office now leads to an arrest and a trip to juvenile court," Hudak noted at a press conference at the Capitol yesterday.

Supporters of the bill say that the post-Columbine atmosphere has, over the past decade, produced close to 100,000 referrals to law enforcement for school conduct issues across the state. Minority students are far more likely to face serious disciplinary action as whites, they claim, for crimes as trivial as wearing a flashy belt (suspected gang activity) to taunting (misdemeanor unlawful sexual harassment).

While more serious drug, assault or theft cases should be prosecuted, many of the referrals are overkill, contends Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett, who was a school board president at the time of the Columbine tragedy. "Educators have overreacted and over-referred school problems to the justice system," he said.

SB 133 calls for a year-long state study of school use of suspensions and law enforcement involvement that would produce recommendations for next year's legislative session. At the moment, though, the bill is still in committee as lawmakers fret over the projected cost of the review -- almost $200,000 -- in an era of budget hacking.

But backers contend that keeping minor behavior issues in house and relying more on a "restorative justice" approach, now used in limited fashion in the Denver Public Schools and some other districts to resolve some conflicts, could end up saving a great deal more.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast