Illustration. (Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat)

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Two years ago in Colorado, an elementary school principal stood behind an 8-year-old boy gripping the boy’s crossed wrists until his body went limp, his eyes fluttered, and he foamed at the mouth.

The school called 911. They also called the boy’s mother. By the time she arrived, her son was regaining consciousness, she said. The 8-year-old was on the floor, being examined by EMTs. She took him home and never brought him back to that elementary school.

The incident, and how it was recorded and reported, were investigated by the Colorado Department of Education following a complaint by the boy’s family.

The findings of that investigation — and the state’s inability to mandate changes — illustrate what some advocates, attorneys, and families say are dangerous weaknesses in Colorado law.

“There is no enforcement power,” said Jack Robinson, a Denver lawyer who represented the family of the 8-year-old boy. “There is no teeth in any of this.”

Though the school principal wrote an incident report recording what happened, the person in charge of reviewing such reports at the Boulder Valley School District didn’t look at it. Nor did she report the holds in the district’s annual restraint review.

A state complaints officer found that Boulder Valley violated several state rules, including using restraints in a non-emergency situation. But under Colorado law, the education department has no authority to require school districts to take corrective action, and it has no way to punish districts that ignore any non-mandatory recommendations it makes.

“If the school district just says, ‘Go to hell,’ there’s nothing CDE can do,” Robinson said.


Melanie Asmar has covered Denver Public Schools for Chalkbeat Colorado since 2015. Asmar previously worked at Westword newspaper in Denver and for a daily newspaper in New Hampshire, where she covered education. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit...