Colorado Students in Criminal Justice System to Have Bill of Rights Adopted

Michelle Villanueva, a mother whose 16-year-old son with autism was arrested at 11 for behavior she attributes to his disability while dealing with a bully in school, is now seeing her son slowly returning to a positive path in his education after a five-year setback.

When Villanueva’s son faced arrest, she felt lost and isolated, unsure of where to turn or who to seek help from. Although his time in jail was brief, it significantly hindered his school progress. Villanueva believes that having access to the right resources earlier would have facilitated a smoother transition back to school for her son.

A new state legislation, House Bill 24-1216, introduces a bill of rights that mandates schools to adhere to set guidelines for K-12 students involved in the juvenile or criminal justice systems. The law outlines diverse routes for these students to reenter school, receive credit for academic work during their time in the system, and work towards graduation.

Under the new law, schools are required to initiate contact with the family of a released student within three days to discuss reenrollment, while reenrollment must occur within 10 business days. Additionally, students are to undergo giftedness evaluations, receive credit for completed coursework while in custody, and have a graduation plan outlined.

An established working group will convene over the next year to determine the details and best practices surrounding the new regulations. Schools must implement these requirements by August 2025, preceding the academic year.

House Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat sponsoring the legislation, emphasized that “justice-engaged” students are entitled to the same rights as any other student. The bill ensures proper communication among state agencies that maintain records of the same students.

Jose Silva, VP of equity initiatives at Denver’s Generation Schools Network​, collaborated directly with justice-involved students to understand and address the obstacles hindering their return to school and success. Community forums were held to gather input from students, families, and school representatives, culminating in the introduction of the bill.

The legislation introduces a hotline enabling families and justice-involved students to seek support. Silva views the hotline as a transformative aspect, not only aiding existing justice-involved students but potentially preventing others from facing similar challenges.

Villanueva recounted her son’s arrest following a physical altercation with another student, emphasizing his sensitivity to touch and communication difficulties that led to self-injurious behavior while in custody. She bore the financial burden to bail him out and sought help from numerous figures, highlighting the uncertainty she faced without a clear guidance system, now mandated by the law.

She believes that the law’s implementation when her son was arrested would have provided guidance and a structured approach to navigating the proceedings effectively.

Silva predicts that around 22,000 students will benefit from the new law’s provisions in its inaugural year. The bill is expected to generate significant economic advantages for the state by increasing graduation rates and steering students towards higher education and employment opportunities, ultimately reducing correctional costs.

He urged collective action to support justice-involved students who often end up in the system due to various societal factors and traumatic experiences, emphasizing the need for a holistic approach to their well-being and education.

School district leaders are encouraged to prepare for the implementation of the bill of rights for justice-involved students, with the designated working group assisting in defining essential terms and practices. Each district is mandated to appoint a staff member to serve as the primary contact for students entangled in the criminal justice system.

The Colorado Department of Education spokesperson, Valerie Mosley, mentioned ongoing efforts to select a facilitator to aid the working group, with collaborations in progress with the courts and the Department of Human Services to finalize the group’s composition.

Bacon stressed the importance of providing educational continuity to incarcerated students, highlighting that failure to acknowledge their credits post-release could lead to dropout rates. She expressed optimism that the bill will prompt schools not only to readmit these students but also offer the necessary support to ensure their educational success and deter recidivism.

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