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Information Sharing to Make Colorado Schools Safer

School Issues CenterIn 1994, an amended federal law opened the door for Colorado to enact a law this year to allow school and criminal justice officials to share information about violent and disruptive students. The new law is intended to help prevent future school violence. Will more states follow Colorado and the other states that have enacted this law?

A year after the Columbine High School tragedy, the Colorado legislature passed a law revoking prior privacy constraints that have hindered teachers and police from sharing information about troubled students. A 1994 amendment to a federal law allowed Colorado to pass the new law. Without a state law that specifically provides for a juvenile justice exemption from the federal privacy act, federal law requires schools and criminal justice officials to obtain either the child's and parent's consent or a court subpoena to obtain records. The federal law requires that information be kept confidential because disclosure of certain information could have an impact on student and family privacy.

The law is described in the 71-page Colorado School Violence Prevention and Student Discipline Manual, published by the Colorado State Attorney's office. The updated manual includes provisions for information sharing as well as new dress code requirements, provisions against bullying in the schools, and requirements that hold parents accountable.



"Teachers are saying if you are placing Charlie Manson Jr. in my school, I need to know," said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in California. "I would say information sharing is among the top five [issues] that can help keep schools safe. There is no question about it."

Colorado's Sharing Requirements

On August 3, Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar advised law enforcement and judicial system officials and school officials about the circumstances when they will be required to share information about troubled or disruptive students.

Juvenile justice agencies are now required to provide schools with information on a student in specific circumstances. For example, they must

* provide information whenever a student is charged in any court for committing a crime of violence or unlawful sexual offense;
* provide arrest and criminal records whenever a delinquency petition is filed in juvenile court;
* provide notice whenever a student is convicted or adjudicated for an offense constituting a crime of violence involving controlled substances or unlawful sexual behavior;
* provide notice whenever a student is convicted or adjudicated for a crime that would result in mandatory expulsion proceedings under Colorado law;
* provide notice whenever a court makes school attendance a condition of release, probation, or sentencing;
* provide access to records or information with respect to delinquency or dependency and neglect matters, including information or records of threats made by the student, upon request by school officials;
* share records of probation officers, law enforcement officials, and parole officers.

Salazar also explained that school districts in Colorado must provide the following information upon request from law enforcement authorities:

* reports of incidents on school grounds involving assault or harassment of a teacher or a school employee;
* truancy, disciplinary, and attendance records.

Laws that permit information sharing among schools and criminal justice officials create important partnerships, essential in keeping schools safe and providing help to those students who need it, Stephens told Education World. "If we are going to make a difference in the lives of [at-risk] young people, we need to know their backgrounds so we can put together plans to help them," he said.

Few states have taken advantage of the 1994 amendment to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which was passed in 1974 and was designed to protect the privacy of students' education records. The amendment allows individual states to pass laws to improve information sharing among school and criminal justice officials about students with histories of disciplinary problems. Illinois and Florida were the first two states to pass laws. Since the Columbine High School killings, Colorado and another three states have either passed or are in the process of enacting exchange information laws.



"Definitely, Columbine was the impetus for the [state] law, and hopefully we can prevent future acts of violence," explained Marilyn Saltzman, manger of communications for Jefferson County Public Schools, the district that includes Columbine High School. "We think it is important to share information for student safety."

Privacy constraints prevented Columbine High School teachers and Jefferson County criminal justice officials from sharing information about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two students who killed 13 people, injured several others, and then killed themselves in April 1999.

"We can't say at this point that the tragedy could have been prevented [by the new law]," Saltzman told Education World. "We'll never know that. According to FBI profiles, [Klebold and Harris] were very adept at hiding what they did."



"Legislation enacted in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy ushers in a new era of potential cooperation between law enforcement and schools," said Attorney General Ken Salazar at an August 3 press conference.

"Law enforcement officials are required to report to schools when students are charged with certain criminal activities, and schools have the responsibility to report specific potential criminal conduct to law enforcement authorities," Salazar said.

At this time, 12 lawsuits have been filed in county and federal courts regarding the Columbine High School massacre. Three have been filed against the Jefferson County Public Schools, according to Rick Kaufman, executive director of communications for Jefferson County. An additional nine cases have been filed against Jefferson County, most directed to the sheriff's department.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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Updated 12/16/2012