Colorado state Capitol

Teenagers from the Colorado Youth Advisory Council are pursuing three new state policies to address substance abuse, eating disorders and disciplinary actions in schools.

The council on Friday presented the proposed bills to lawmakers, who voted to advance and send them to a legislative council meeting on Oct. 4 to determine if the bills would go to the General Assembly for consideration when it reconvenes in January next year.

The first bill aims to reform the way schools intervene and respond to substance abuse among students. Colorado is the seventh most pervasive state for substance abuse in the country, according to a 2022 study, and youth substance abuse is more common here than the national average.

“We’ve identified a major need for substance abuse care in Colorado schools,” said Bhavya Surapaneni, a member of the Youth Advisory Council. “Typically, programs regarding substance abuse have to do with prevention and encouraging students to not use substances in the first place. But obviously, people slip through the cracks and we want to have a program in place for students who require intervention.”

To address this, the bill would expand on the state’s existing Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Program, which is already in place at some of Colorado’s school-based health centers and is designed to detect early substance use disorders in students and refer them for treatment. If passed, the bill would implement the SBIRT Program in all secondary schools statewide. 

The second bill seeks to create a state Office of Disordered Eating Prevention tasked with supporting individuals with eating disorders, increasing awareness of prevention and care, preparing written materials for primary care offices, and creating a public resource bank for research, intervention methods, treatments, crisis services and more.

In 2015, Colorado had the fifth-highest rate of eating disorders in the country among adolescents.

“People don’t know where to go when they’re trying to refer people to treatment,” said Aimee Resnick, an alumnus of the Youth Advisory Council. "(The office) would thoroughly take an upstream prevention approach to eating disorders and make sure that we’re doing the most we can to not only reduce eating disorders in our state, but to be a trailblazer across the country in spearheading this public health effort.”

The bill would also create a $200,000 grant program to fund research into the risk factors, effects and root causes for disordered eating and create the Disordered Eating Prevention Commission to develop policy recommendations.

Finally, the third bill intends to reduce inequalities in school disciplinary action. In the 2017-18 school year, Black students were 4.6% of Colorado’s school populations but made up 9.5% and 9.8% of students suspended and expelled, according to data from the Civil Rights Data Collection. Hispanic, Latino and mixed-race students were also similarly overrepresented in disciplinary rates.

The bill would require educational boards to create a policy to address disproportionate disciplinary practices, and schools that identify significant disparities between racial, ethnic, ability, socioeconomic or language groups must develop, implement and annually review an improvement plan.

In addition, the bill would require that schools document alternative attempts at discipline and consider a student’s age, disciplinary history, disability status, seriousness of the violation and safety threat before suspending or expelling them. These requirements are already in place for kindergarten through second grade, but the bill would expand it all the way through 12th grade.

Lawmakers approved the substance abuse bill in a unanimous 4-0 vote, while the other two bills passed, 3-1. Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, voted against the bills without comment.

If the bills made it to the General Assembly, Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Rep. Mandy Lindsay, D-Aurora, would be the prime sponsors. The substance abuse bill would begin in the House, while the other two bills would start in the Senate.

The Colorado Youth Advisory Council also drafted three other bills that were not selected to move onto the legislative council. They would have sought to improve education and awareness of HIV among teenagers, increase the number of licensed psychologists within schools and establish youth participation in committees tasked with updating educational standards.

Legislators could still decide to sponsor them in the upcoming legislative session.

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