Colorado lawmakers back support for youth mental health

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Money for community solutions to youth violence, behavioral health services and the decriminalization of pre-teen offending.

These three initiatives offer a view of how Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers would like to address youth violence and behavioral health issues — tackling problems early and continuing their efforts to keep children out of the justice system. .

“Prevention is key,” said state Rep. Mary Young, a Greeley Democrat and former school psychologist. “What we provide to communities can really lead to reduced suicidal ideation and reduced youth violence.”

She said research proves the effectiveness of early intervention.

Legislators feel compelled to address public safety in an election year. Violent crime rates have risen, with high-profile shootings near schools and more young people dying from gun violence.

Lawmakers have already addressed school safety and violence. After the 2018 Parkland shootings in Florida, Colorado lawmakers earmarked $35 million to improve the physical security of school buildings, and after the 2019 STEM School Filming in Douglas County, they convened a special committee that recommended policy changes to improve information sharing and support student mental health.

This year, the push for more behavioral and mental health resources appears to be common ground for lawmakers.

A bipartisan school safety bill includes school safety infrastructure. It would also fund behavioral health services. It is continuing the 2018 program that ended last year, but at lower funding levels.

Sponsoring state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highland Ranch Republican, said he wants the state to continue the program because it’s been proven to make schools safer and children healthier. health.

“We have decided to do everything we can to prevent further violence at school so that children can be children and learn in safe environments,” Van Winkle said.

Other Republican lawmakers also support those efforts but want to put more police in schools. State Sen. Cleave Simpson, a Republican from Alamosa, said it would build trust between police and communities and provide schools with resources to keep children safe.

Democratic lawmakers, who control the statehouse, rejected the proposal.

Black and Latino caucuses in particular have pushed back against police presence in schools. State Senator Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, told Republicans that parents and students care about school safety but don’t want police in the classroom.

Lawmakers say they are refocusing on preventative measures

Lawmakers also presented a list of bipartisan bills that improving mental health services for children and adults. Lawmakers want to use federal pandemic relief money to increase training and services to address mental health in schools.

House Speaker Alec Garnett said the state’s fight to fund education has meant that investments in student behavioral and mental health have been abandoned. Superintendents and educators called it a top priority.

“We’ve had some tough years, but you’re starting to see the refocusing,” Garnett said.

Those who value advice and support over punishment said they would help students learn from their mistakes.

Taylor Pendergrass, advocacy director for the ACLU Colorado, supports this approach. He said it’s a much more effective strategy than a law enforcement response.

The civil liberties group backs a bill that would raise the age at which children could be involved in the justice system, from 10 to 13. Opponents have said the bill harms victims of violence. It narrowly passed the House Judiciary Committee after five hours of emotional testimony, two hearings and numerous amendments.

Pendergrass said the bill includes measures that “actually make all students safer in a way that doesn’t exacerbate racial disparities.”

And the pandemic has highlighted the need for more mental health services for children. Increased stress on children can lead to suicidal ideation and violent behavior, advocates say.

During committee testimony, a student at Legend High School told lawmakers that mental health programs help students cope with stress by saying “it’s OK to be wrong and it’s OK not to be wrong.” to be perfect”.

Mo Keller, director of mental health advocacy in Colorado, told a committee meeting this week that psychological distress among young people has increased over the past two years.

Having more easily accessible programs can reduce mental health issues, he said, and also “reinforce the idea that it’s a sign of strength to seek help and increase the likelihood that students connect to the services they need”.

Jason Gonzales is a journalist covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at [email protected].

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