Rhonda Fields Archives - Colorado Politics

Marianne GoodlandMarianne GoodlandFebruary 5, 20187min2140

An bill to put on notice school administrators, teachers and others who are required by law but fail to report sexual abuse is on hold while lawmakers iron out just how long the statute of limitations for those cases should be.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 58, which as introduced would eliminate the statute of limitations for those required to report abuse to law enforcement. The bill was before the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Monday, which took testimony but decided to postpone action until Wednesday while amendments are being worked out.

The impetus for Fields’ bill is more then three dozen allegations of sexual abuse involving five middle school students at Prairie Middle School in Aurora between 2013 and 2017.

The first case involved a 13-year old who reported the abuse to her mother in 2013, but instead of seeing the teacher who assaulted her arrested, she was forced to recant her confession and even give him a hug. She was then suspended for making a false report.

The reason: her mother told school authorities, who didn’t report the abuse to law enforcement as required by state law. It took another case of abuse by the same teacher, in which the parents went to the police first, for teacher Brian Vasquez to be arrested.

Fields and Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler both indicated Monday they fear the current short statute of limitations for reporting the alleged crime to law enforcement could let the school officials who failed to report get away with it.

Vasquez is now facing 37 counts of sexual misconduct involving the five girls, including with four that took place after the 13-year old came forward.

Current state law sets an 18-month statute of limitations for those required by law to report child sexual abuse, including teachers, school counselors and administrators and the clergy.

That’s not long enough, according to Fields, who wanted to see the statute of limitations eliminated entirely.

But that’s too long for the Colorado Catholic Conference and the Colorado Education Association, both which sent statements of opposition to the committee. Neither group testified at Monday’s hearing.

The Catholic Church, which has been embroiled for decades in cases of child sexual abuse, including in Colorado, said in its statement that it has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse. The problem with SB 58 is that “it creates an indefinite statute of limitations regarding mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. The principle of statutes of limitation acknowledges that as time elapses, evidence goes stale, memories fade, witnesses die or disappear.”

Those who are abused should be encouraged to come forward as quickly as possible and state policy “should reflect this policy as a matter of basic fairness to those involved and not go down a slippery slope that potentially creates unfair and unjust situations,” the statement concluded.

The teachers’ union said it opposed the bill because “it shifts the focus away from bringing perpetrators to justice…instead puts trusted professionals in the impossible situation of knowing how a crime should have been prevented.” The bill will strip professionals of legal protections and create a landslide of criminal and civil litigations “against the very people we count on every day to support Colorado children.”

In the Prairie Middle School incident, the school administrators investigated the claims against Vasquez. “That’s not their role,” Fields told the committee. “If a child says she has been raped, you tell her it’s not her fault and call the police.”

The three administrators – Principal David Gonzales, Assistant Principal Adrienne MacIntosh and former school counselor Cheryl Somers-Wegienka – were indicted last month for failing to report the abuse.

The failure-to-report charge is a class 3 misdemeanor, the lowest-level offense in state law, and carries a penalty of as little as $50 or as much as $750, and up to six months in jail. That prompted committee Chair Sen. Vicki Marble, a Fort Collins Republican, to question whether the penalty for failing to report ought to be heightened to a felony.

Those who are required by law to call the police, known as mandatory reporters, “understand the law” but “sweep complaints under the rug,” Fields said. She claimed the Church and the teachers’ union fear a floodgate of complaints should the statute of limitations be eliminated, so she was wiling to amend the bill to set a five-year limit from the date of discovery of the abuse.

“This isn’t about the CEA or the Catholic Church,” Fields said. “It’s about a process to protect our children.”

The reputation of the so-called Senate “kill committee” toward bills offered by Democrats dissuaded some of the victims in the Prairie Middle School cases from testifying Monday, according to Fields and an attorney who represents several of them, Qusair Mohamedbhai of Denver. That appeared to rankle Marble, who claimed her committee gives bills fair hearings.

Brauchler, who supports the bill, gave some of the strongest comments to the committee. “If you vote no, you’re voting for the status quo,” he said. “If you vote yes, you’re voting for the protection of kids.” He called the 18-month current limit “paltry and inadequate.”

“We tell our kids, when this happens, tell someone.” And when they do, some adults don’t listen, Fields said.

The bill will be back in front of the State Affairs Committee Wednesday.


Joey BunchJoey BunchJanuary 25, 20184min5700

The Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado held its annual opening reception this week. Also celebrated as the Historic Eight, this delegation is made up of six House and two Senate members working collectively to create and track legislation focused on Coloradans of color.

The intimate event took place at the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood, rightfully so. Five Points is nostalgically known as the “Harlem of the West,” once serving as the epicenter of Denver’s thriving black business and social scenes.

Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado
Three of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado members who gathered for a legislative preview this week are , from left, Reps. Tony Exum Sr., Jovan Melton and James Coleman. (Photo by Gabrielle Bryant/Colorado Politics)

Legislators, community members and supporters packed the third floor of the library to hear about the concerted effort the BDLC is putting toward policy during this session.

“I know this Black Caucus and, particularly, Janet Buckner, and all of them are actively trying to be sure that our K-12 system is the best it can be for the students they represent,” said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley.

Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora is also working on legislation aimed at helping Colorado kids get access to reduced copay lunches. The Expand Child Nutrition School Lunch Protection Act would, “allow school districts to increase access to a healthy meal during school hours for 1.4 million more students. Because hunger knows no age.”

Healthcare, housing, business and technology are also among the issues the BDLC are tackling this session.

“These are people who have their ear to the ground…listening to what people are saying and what they need. Because of that, they have special expertise to devise policy that is cost effective and can really make a difference in the community. That benefits everybody in Colorado. ” said Aaron Harber, host of “The Aaron Harber Show.”

Members of the BDLC are Sens. Angela Williams (chair)of Denver  and Fields, as well as Reps. James Coleman of Denver, Leslie Herod of Denver, Tony Exum Sr. of Colorado Springs, Janet Buckner of Aurora, Dominique Jackson on Denver and Jovan Melton (vice chair) of Aurora.


Joey BunchJoey BunchJanuary 19, 20184min306
A bill to restore the funding and redistribute the attention of the Colorado Energy Office cleared its first committee Thursday. That’s not surprising for a Republican bill in a Republican-led committee, but the bipartisan 9-2 vote on Senate Bill 3 means it might have a chance to rescue an imperiled agency. Last year a partisan […]

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Gabrielle BryantGabrielle BryantJanuary 11, 20183min10290

As the legislative session started Wednesday you could feel the excitement and anxiety in both chambers. Priorities were laid out for the next 119 days, including working to improve Colorado’s roads, addressing a projected shortfall in state employees’ pension system, expanding rural broadband accessibility, tackling energy, solving the state’s opioid crisis and ensuring men and women who work at the Capitol feel protected and feel heard amid looming allegations of sexual misconduct.

Simultaneously, the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus, known as the “Historic Eight,” the largest number of black legislators to serve in Colorado at once, is also working on policy more specifically aimed at the advancement of people of color. The contingent is prioritizing education, small business creation, housing affordability and the criminal justice system.

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora
Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, discusses issues that disproportionately affect Coloradans of color. (Photo by Gabrielle Bryant/Colorado Politics)

“This legislative session will be pivotal to Colorado’s future as we believe what we do in the general assembly will have impacts on this year’s election,” said Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, the vice chairman of the caucus. “It’s important that the issues plaguing African-Americans across our state are not ignored and that our vote is not taken for granted.”

While they make up 8 percent of the legislature, black Coloradans are a mere 4.5 percent of the population, and voter turnout for this demographic has been consistently low in recent elections.

Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, who chairs the BDLC, said the group has hired a staff member to aid them in introducing policy and to “keep an eye out for legislation that might appear to be inequitable to our communities of color.”

Specific legislation details are expected to be rolled out in the in the coming days, as lawmakers formally introduce bills.

The BDLC’s annual legislative preview will take place on Jan. 22 on the third floor of the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

Besides Melton and Williams. the caucus includes Sens. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Reps. James Coleman of Denver, Leslie Herod of Denver, Tony Exum Sr. of Colorado Springs, Janet Buckner of Aurora and Dominique Jackson of Denver.

(Editor’s note: This story was corrected to reflect that Jovan Melton is from Aurora.)


Joey BunchJoey BunchJanuary 6, 201811min3410


Joey BunchJoey BunchDecember 28, 20173min443
The African Leadership Group, a 15-year-old Aurora-based organization, welcomed local politicians and honored its volunteer of the year and other members at a gala last weekend at Noonan’s Event Center. Pascal Koki, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, works two jobs, including a night shift, on top of being a full-time student and mother of […]

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Joey BunchJoey BunchOctober 8, 201712min347
We got to see @repjamescoleman's @BarackObama impression tonight! @DenverDems #coleg pic.twitter.com/fZ8NXYLzdv — Lynn Bartels (@lynn_bartels) October 8, 2017 Today is just the most recent example of how TABOR is used to sabotage the simplest and most practical efforts to meet Coloradans' expectations of their state government. #coleg #copolitics — Scott Wasserman (@sjwasserman) October 3, 2017 […]

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