State and federal surveys have declared that Colorado youths are not using marijuana more than before the drug became legal for adult recreational use in 2014, and that use among juveniles is actually dropping. State officials frequently point to those surveys as proof that Colorado is succeeding in a key metric for regulating pot.
Statistics from district attorneys across the state on arrests and charges appear to back that up.
Yet law-enforcement officers who interact with students each school day, and whose job it is to intervene and report on drug use by teens, offer a starkly different perspective. And a Denver Post review of available data found shortcomings in how marijuana cases are handled and tracked in Colorado schools, raising questions about the data’s reliability.
School resource officers in Colorado – police who are assigned to public schools – say that based on their observations, use among students has increased in recent years. What has changed, they say, is how youths are disciplined in school for marijuana violations and how statewide data on violations is collected.
These officers say they are issuing fewer tickets for marijuana infractions today than they would have without those changes, which include a 2012 law that did away with zero tolerance toward pot in Colorado schools and a policy revision that allowed districts and individual schools to decide how to deal with the problem and its discipline.
“I tend to believe we’d be issuing many more citations, and you’d most certainly see an increase in that,” said Stacey Collis, a Lakewood police officer who is president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers. “Perhaps it’s a perfect storm, with different responses from the schools, with some handling it the same as always, and others sitting back on a petty offense, not reporting it or dealing with it on their own.”
In a survey this year by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded agency that coordinates drug enforcement activities in a four-state region, 86 percent of Colorado resource officers said they believe marijuana use among students has risen dramatically. That’s up from 82 percent who said the same last year.
In an effort to determine what is actually happening with youth marijuana use in Colorado, The Post reviewed state and local arrest records, court data and state research on school incidents, and interviewed a half-dozen resource officers and advocates in Colorado. The Post found a picture that’s less clear than the youth survey results and arrest and charging statistics suggest.
Records do not account for many young offenders who either are not reported to police, are not ticketed because police say there’s too little to cite, or have infractions that are not tabulated because of programs designed to protect minors from blemished records. Scores of marijuana incidents were reported by schools but not by police, because either the schools did not involve the officers or, in some cases, police departments did not report the information to those compiling the data.
In other cases, researchers count only those arrests or tickets police say they issued to public school students, part of a statewide program to track those interactions, and not hundreds of other marijuana infractions that are ticketed to juveniles outside of a school setting or event.
“The data collecting is just not done well,” said Lynn Riemer, executive director of Act on Drugs, a Thornton nonprofit that last year did 755 in-school training sessions about drugs, including detailed sessions about marijuana. “You’ve got everyone doing their own little thing and we don’t get the true picture of what’s happening, a true sense of just how many kids are affected.”
More discretion granted
Each year, Colorado schools report to the Colorado Department of Education the number and type of incidents that required discipline – those involving drugs, assaults and weapons among them. The report shows the number of students suspended and expelled, as well as the number of times law enforcement was asked to be involved.
The legislature in 2012 passed a law that gave school administrators and local school boards greater discretion in determining student discipline for all offenses.
In tandem, the education department encouraged those schools to limit the use of suspensions and expulsions as a disciplinary response. There were even agreements signed between some police departments and school districts – Denver among them – to encourage alternative approaches to what had been seen as automatic ticket writing.
The actual number of marijuana-related offenses in public schools was not known until the 2015-16 school year, when the drug was separated from the collective number of drug violations schools were required to report. Previously, any incidents involving drugs – marijuana, cocaine or another – were simply lumped together.
In the first school year that marijuana was counted separately, 1,585 public schools reported 2,928 incidents that involved pot. It’s unclear how many, if any, were by repeat offenders, or the form in which the drug was found – leaf, edible or concentrate.
Of that total of marijuana incidents, schools reported that police were involved in 831 cases — roughly once out of every 3.5 incidents — and 195 students were expelled, according to the data compiled by the education department.
The following school year, records show 1,612 schools reported 3,460 marijuana incidents – about a 20 percent increase. But the frequency with which police were involved had dropped to 847 times, or once for every 4.1 incidents, while the number of students expelled was marginally higher at 211.
“There are schools that don’t hold the offenders accountable and have softer consequences,” Riemer said. “The kids say, ‘Go ahead, write me a ticket.’ It doesn’t have the same impact.”
Police data tell a different story. In the first year marijuana incidents were tracked separately, the Colorado Department of Public Safety said police were involved in 1,561 marijuana incidents in schools – the most frequent and a quarter of all the reasons police are called to schools, ranging from robbery to fighting.
But barely half of the 246 police agencies in Colorado reported their data for analysis, state records show, indicating the totals are probably higher.
“Unfortunately, we only have the data that we received and can’t speculate as to why an agency may not have reported,” public safety department spokeswoman Patricia Billinger said in an email. “It is unknown if this occurred because there were no incidents at schools in these jurisdictions, or if these agencies were unaware of the reporting mandated by (the legislature) or if they simply failed to submit data.”
She said there is no enforcement procedure to ensure all police agencies submit their data.
It used to be that schools routinely brought in police to help deal with drug offenses of any type – back when marijuana was illegal. That has changed, and law enforcement is not always asked to help deal with those situations nearly as frequently, according to state education reports.
The Post found at least a dozen schools in the past two years in which students involved in a marijuana-related situation were later expelled – the most serious form of discipline – and police either were not notified at all or for just a minority of the incidents. In other schools, police were called in nearly every time marijuana was involved, whether a student was expelled or not, records show.
”There’s been a long misbelief in a school-to-jail pipeline that police were simply writing too many tickets, putting too many of the kids into the system,” said Collis, who notes his relationship with officials at Green Mountain High School, where he’s based, is very strong. “Schools have always had the ability to deal with discipline as they saw fit. But we have heard of some schools, some districts, in the state that simply don’t want to say anything.”
Districts such as Colorado Springs 11 appear to have underreported either the number of marijuana infractions they have, or the frequency with which police are asked to intervene in them, The Post found.
In its required annual report to state education officials, CS11 reported it had 249 marijuana-related incidents at 56 schools in the 2015-16 school year. The district reported it had expelled 29 students — but reported no contacts with law enforcement.
Yet Colorado Springs police say they handled 64 marijuana incidents at CS11 schools in that time and issued 103 tickets, state public safety records show. It’s unclear if those tickets were written as a result of any contact with school officials, or were on school grounds or a school-sanctioned event such as a football game.
The same was true for the 2016-17 school year, with CS11 reporting 195 marijuana incidents and 25 expulsions – and no contact with police. Municipal court records, however, show Colorado Springs police wrote 94 tickets in 2016 for illegal marijuana possession by someone under 21 years of age – the most since at least 2012 – and were on their way to eclipsing that total this year.
School resourse officers, or SROs, “are involved in every discussion about marijuana infractions,” said Devra Ashby, a spokeswoman for CS11. “Basically what happens is the infraction is reported or there is reasonable suspicion, the SRO is made aware and then they determine how involved they will be with the situation … and determine if they will issue a citation.”
Ashby said the district does not track or report the number of times police are involved with any infraction at CS11 schools – information the state requires and that parents often rely on in choosing which school their child will attend.
“I’ve written more marijuana tickets in the last two years than I ever wrote while out on patrol,” said Officer Vern Thompson, one of 20 SROs in Colorado Springs. “Each school district reports the incidents differently and with people now choosing the schools, they look at the public record, and a school with a high number of any incidents, that may impact and sway that parent’s decision.”
Ashby said the school district has changed how it approaches marijuana infractions since the state changed the law in 2012.
“District 11 used to have a zero-tolerance drug policy where students would be suspended and/or expelled for any and all types of infractions,” Ashby said. “That has since been changed to a no-tolerance policy. If a student comes to school high and has no record of past disciplinary records, then it’s not very likely that student will be expelled.”
Similarly, records show more students were expelled over marijuana from two schools in the Adams 12 district – Northglenn High School and Thornton High School – than the number of times police were involved with an incident there.
Thornton police reported no contacts with students at its high school. Northglenn police, on the other hand, said they issued 16 tickets for marijuana possession, although the school reported 58 marijuana incidents and five expulsions.
Other schools in the Adams 12 district, such as Legacy High School, the district’s largest, appeared to frequently involve police anytime there was a marijuana incident.
“There’s a great disparity in the numbers of kids they say use marijuana and what we actually saw,” said Matt Montgomery, a former Broomfield police officer and SRO. “They’re doing it so much that it’s scary. Marijuana is easier to get than alcohol.”
That schools could have expulsions over a drug violation and not have any police contact is troubling, Montgomery said. “There was never a time that a kid got expelled and I didn’t at least write a ticket, but usually arrested them,” he said of the schools where he worked. “It just didn’t happen.”
The Denver school system has adopted a “restorative justice” program in which students take responsibility for their misconduct in order to avoid harsher punishment, such as arrest or a ticket that would send them to court.
That was, in part, from a written agreement Denver Public Schools and the police made in 2013, a relaxing of the “zero-tolerance” policy and a deal with school resource officers to avoid an arrest or ticket unless absolutely necessary. The deal arose from student and parent concerns that the department’s 15 SROs were “writing tickets left and right” for offenses as petty as foul language.
Things changed almost immediately.
In 2014, the department issued 15 percent fewer tickets to juveniles for illegally possessing marijuana after hitting high of 373 citations the year before. Arrests for marijuana infractions at Denver schools also dropped, from 236 during the 2015-16 school year to 183 the following year, records show.