After Jack Padilla, a freshman at Cherry Creek High School, took his own life in February 2019, his father, Rick Padilla, made it his mission to make a difference in the lives of youths who face mental health challenges.
Along with experiencing depression, Jack Padilla had dealt with bullying at school and on social media.
In western Colorado, a Montrose teenager named Caitlyn Haynes died by suicide in 2015. She, too, experienced bullying.
Both teens’ families pushed for a bill in the state Legislature called “Jack and Cait’s Law,” a proposal that hopes to change how schools address bullying. On June 7, Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill in a ceremony with the Padilla and Haynes families standing alongside him.
The families were “trying to make meaning of tragedy and difficulty,” and they turned their loss into an effort that can help others, Polis said at the ceremony.
The Colorado Department of Education had already written a “model bullying prevention and education policy” in recent years to provide guidance to school districts developing their own bullying prevention policies. But the state’s model policy was not required to be adopted by any local education agency — rather, school districts are only encouraged to follow the state’s policy, Rick Padilla said.
“That has resulted, in my opinion, in a patchwork of policies across the state,” Padilla said.
Now, the new law named after Jack Padilla and Caitlyn Haynes — officially called state House Bill 21-1221 — requires that school districts adopt certain aspects of the state’s policy, Padilla said.
Colorado’s bullying prevention model policy was first published on the Colorado Department of Education’s website in July 2019 and is required to be updated every three years.
Jack and Cait’s Law requires that the model policy “clearly differentiate between a conflict and bullying and between harassment and bullying,” according to the law’s text. That’s important because some school districts classify what would otherwise be bullying as “student conflict,” Rick Padilla said.
The new law also requires the state’s model policy to “clarify the role of cyberbullying during online instruction, which may occur on or off school property.”
Another change pays more mind to the emotional damage students can cause. Public schools are required to submit annually a written report to their district’s board of education about the “learning environment,” and that report must include violations such as incidents of bullying. Under the new law, behavior that creates a threat of emotional harm — not just physical harm — to students is included in the types of violations that must be reported.
Despite the emotional harm that bullying can cause through social media, if a parent were to raise the issue with a school, officials would probably say they can’t control it, Padilla said.
“Well, if you look on Snapchat, if you look on Instagram, if you follow this stuff, you can intervene,” Padilla added.
‘The bully and the bullied’
After Jack Padilla’s death, Rick Padilla was unsatisfied with an investigation by local authorities.
Currently, families have no recourse or ability to appeal the handling of a bullying incident to higher powers without taking legal action, Padilla said.
If a principal classifies an incident as school conflict, and a family wants to appeal the situation up to superintendent level or to the school board or, if desired, to the state level, that’s an option Padilla wants them to have.
He’s pushing for that ability to be added in the 2022 revision to the state’s model policy.
Jack and Cait’s Law requires that the state use a “stakeholder process” when updating the model policy — and that the process include participation by the parents of students who have been bullied.
“Between now and 2022, we’re going to spend time and go through the state’s model bullying prevention policy line by line to come up with really substantive changes,” Padilla said. He added that he feels that revision effort will reduce suicide rates.
Last year, Padilla pushed for a similar proposal to the recently passed law, but the bill didn’t see success as the coronavirus pandemic interrupted last spring’s legislative work.
“What’s really important to us with this bill is this is really a mental health issue,” Padilla said.
Padilla wants more resources to help “the bully and the bullied,” he said. Students who bully need counseling instead of being suspended for two weeks and then coming back to continue the problem, he added. Bolstering mental health resources is a goal he and other stakeholders plan on addressing partly via the state model bullying policy.
“We have to take a different approach to this,” Padilla said.