Marijuana in El Paso County schools: ‘Not off the charts … but not going away’

Author: Debbie Kelley, The Gazette - April 30, 2018 - Updated: April 30, 2018

Corporal Matt Sanchez points high on a locker for Amp to search at Fountain Middle School in Fountain in 2017. Sanchez and Amp search the gym locker room frequently because it is one of the least disruptive places they can search. (The Gazette, Nadav Soroker)

COLORADO SPRINGS — While significant data on teen consumption of marijuana since legalization is still hard to come by, available statistics show that Pikes Peak region students are mirroring statewide trends – including marijuana being the top reason for police contacts at public schools.

In the 2016-17 school year, law enforcement agencies in El Paso and Teller counties were involved with student marijuana incidents 119 times, according to a new report by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. That was 23 percent of all police visits to schools that year and the number one reason police cited students on school grounds.

Colorado Springs police were called to city schools a combined 87 times for marijuana issues last school year. That represented a quarter of all police visits and the top reason for police involvement on school grounds at Academy School District 20, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, Colorado Springs School District 11, Harrison School District 2 and portions of Falcon School District 49.

Issues involving marijuana occur daily in schools, said Colorado Springs police Sgt. Rick Bubacz, who oversees half of the 19 officers assigned to work in city schools.

“Young people have more exposure to it and become desensitized, thinking it’s no different than alcohol,” he said. “There are more opportunities for young people to get their hands on mom or dad’s marijuana, edibles and vape oil. We see all of that in the schools.”

Kids bring weed and paraphernalia to school, are caught smoking pot or are involved in sales and distribution. Under Colorado law, marijuana possession or use under age 21 is grounds for suspension or expulsion and may rise to criminal charges.

“We’re not off the charts with marijuana,” Bubacz said, “but it’s not likely it’s going away.”


Two sets of books

One of several photos shared by the Colorado Springs Police Department that it says shows high schoolers using their lunch breaks to smoke weed and drink alcohol. The photos were shared at a SmartColorado conference addressing fallout from recreational legalization of marijuana. “These are selfies, because they’re proud,” said CSPD Sgt. Lisa Cintron at the conference. (Courtesy photo)

Last year’s 119 El Paso-Teller school marijuana incidents are down from the 147 student contacts reported in the 2015-16 school year – the first year data became available.

That school year, in all school districts in the city limits of Colorado Springs, marijuana was the second-most common reason for police called to schools, behind public peace disturbances – 123 vs. 103 incidents.

The state has two sets of books when it comes to marijuana use by public school students. The Division of Criminal Justice tracks incidents in which police are called – but policies on police contact vary by district.

The state Department of Education requires districts to report all marijuana-related student activity. For the 2016-17 year, 478 schools in 84 different school districts reported 3,463 marijuana incidents. Those schools’ combined enrollment totaled 355,377 students, so, about 1 percent of students in those schools were cited in reported cases.

Infraction rates per school vary widely, state data show, ranging from 250 incidents per 1,000 students to 0.4 incidents per 1,000. Looking at schools with at least 1,000 students, only one in El Paso County – Coronado High School in Colorado Springs School District 11 – made the top 10, tying for 10th-most incidents with 24 per 1,000 students, according to the data.

Marijuana-related activity among D-11 students spiked in the 2010-11 school year and again in 2014-15, said Gregory Ecks, director of student discipline services. For the past two school years, the numbers have decreased.

One trend on the increase: More females are using marijuana in D-11 than in the past, Ecks said, with the percentage ratio of males and females consuming pot shifting from 70/30 to 60/40 in the past few years.

Here’s the good news: One of the markers district officials look for is whether marijuana use has “started to push down into the elementary schools,” he said. “Thankfully, we don’t see any increases in that area.”

Districtwide, D-11, the region’s largest school district with about 27,400 students, had the state’s seventh highest number of marijuana incidents last school year – 195 in 18 schools, according to the Education Department data.

None were serious enough to be referred to police. Other school districts across the state, including Pueblo City Schools District 60 and Greeley-Evans School District 6, also had zero police referrals.

That doesn’t mean D-11 schools didn’t consult with law enforcement, Ecks said.

The problem is that the reporting system allows one action to be selected and includes suspension or expulsion, he said.

“Principals record certain behaviors in a certain way, and it becomes numbers people use to witch hunt,” he said, adding that it doesn’t mean the schools aren’t handling the episodes properly.

D-11 expels 10 percent to 15 percent of students involved with marijuana-related issues, Ecks said, usually cases involving repeat offenders or sales. Although Colorado law does not differentiate between the sale, possession or use, he noted.

“We treat it the same, and the school principal under state law makes a decision about whether it’s grounds for suspension,” Ecks said.


Marijuana ranks third in Teen Court cases
Many students caught with marijuana in city schools are routed through municipal court instead of county court, where they face a violation of city code instead of a misdemeanor. A 2016 change in city code addresses paraphernalia, with 44 violations occurring since then.

Last year, 117 kids in city schools were ticketed for marijuana violations and disciplined through municipal court.

“Our goal isn’t to put every kid through the criminal justice system,” Bubacz said.

Some students face disciplinary action in Colorado Springs Teen Court, a restorative justice program in which juvenile offenders can be judged by a panel of their peers and be referred to therapy or drug treatment, required to make amends and other recompense. All youth are monitored for progress.

About half of the 350 youth who come before the Teen Court system each school year are found to be using marijuana, said Morgan Mote, executive director of Colorado Springs Teen Court and president of the Colorado Teen Court Association. Before recreational legalization, she said it was about 10 percent.

“The increase in use has been much, much more since legalization,” she said.

Teen Court handles first-time juvenile offenders ages 10 through 17, who are referred through municipal court, schools or police.

Shoplifting and fighting are the top two reasons kids land in the nonprofit program. Marijuana ranks third. In 2017, Teen Court handled 67 adolescent cases of marijuana infractions. Already this year, there have been 56 cases.

“Pot in the world of teens is a nonentity – it’s not good or bad,” Mote said. “When people use, it’s not a big deal to teens because they don’t view it as illegal. They don’t see anything wrong with it, and it’s difficult for them to recognize the criminal side.”

Teen Court not only addresses the charges but also what’s going on in the teen’s life and pairs offenders with mentoring or substance abuse programs. Urine testing is part of the plan.

The program also helps adolescents understand the illegality, potential dangers of youth use and future impacts, Mote said.

Teens with a marijuana charge can’t access financial aid for college through federal government programs, Mote said, since the substance is still illegal under federal law.

Also, some employers see a criminal brush with marijuana as a black mark for a job candidate, she said.

The program has a 95 percent completion rate and a 7 percent recidivism rate, Mote said.

“Working with the whole kid and not just addressing the criminal issues they have does impact change,” she said. “This is the next generation. It’s vital we support them in their journey in moving into adulthood.”

School and law enforcement officials now are on the alert for the newer products and devices. Anecdotally, more and more students are attending school under the influence of something, D-11’s Ecks said.

“We can still only catch traditional methods of consumption of marijuana,” he said, “most of that through smoking.”

Edibles and even vaporizers are more difficult to detect.

Students have been known to ingest marijuana using vapor devices in bathrooms, locker rooms and even classrooms, said Emma Cook, community health educator for the Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership, a program of El Paso County Public Health.

“It’s one of our biggest concerns,” she said. “We have heard students are putting not just nicotine juice but also marijuana or crushed-up pills into vapor products and smoking them in these devices.”

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette

Debbie Kelley, The Gazette