A freshly signed anti-bullying law honoring the memory of a Montrose teenager who died by suicide in 2015 is a building block — not the final step — for ending bullying, backers said Monday.
“This is the start,” said Maya Haynes of Montrose. Haynes and her husband, Todd, were in Denver Monday to witness Gov. Jared Polis sign into law House Bill 1221. Its official title is Bullying and Prevention in Schools — but it is more poignantly known as Jack and Cait’s Law, after the Haynes’ late daughter, Caitlyn, and Jack Padilla, a Cherry Creek teenager who also died by suicide.
“We’re asking everyone to the table to figure out how we can help these lawmakers make good, permanent changes across the state,” Maya Haynes said. “It’s been a long, emotional road. It’s a lot to rehash everything and tell your story over and over. The kids are worth it.”
When Haynes refers to kids, she does not only mean her daughter. She means both other victims of bullying — and those who bully.
Jack and Cait’s law requires the Colorado Department of Education to use a stakeholder process when updating policy for bullying prevention; the process has to include parents of students who were subjected to bullying. This policy has to make clear the difference between a conflict and bullying, as well as differentiate between harassment and bullying, plus clarify the role of cyber bullying during online instruction, whether off or on school property.
Current law already requires specific policy for preventing bullying and that safe school reports include the number of conduct and discipline code violations that are detrimental to the safety and welfare of others. The bill requires that incidents of bullying be listed as a separate type of violation.
Under the final version of Jack and Cait’s Law, language specifying bullying as grounds for suspension or expulsion was stricken.
That’s because suspension and expulsion are not long-term solutions, Haynes said.
“Everyone thinks suspension and expulsion are the answer. It doesn’t actually work long-term. It’s a short-term solution. The long-term solution is to get the bully the help they need so they no longer bully … so this never happens again to a different child,” she said.
After Cait’s death in 2015, Haynes established the nonprofit PEER Kindness, an anti-bullying and support foundation that works in partnership with schools, youth programs and the community.
“Our foundation, PEER Kindness, is the only one that works with both the bullied child and the bully, because we understand the most effective way to remedy bullying in the school is to actually work with the bullies themselves, so that we can change future bullying,” Haynes said.
Haynes and Todd met with Padilla’s family and Sen. Don Coram, R- Montrose, as well as House Sponsors Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Jefferson County, and Mary Young, D- Weld County, to help craft a bill they felt comfortable lending their daughter’s name to.
“After a lot of sitting with lobbyists and attorneys and so on for a couple of years, we carved out a format we could support,” Haynes said.
In order for Cait’s name to be on the bill, the family wanted the suspension and expulsion language removed. (That language state bullying was a type of behavior that could be grounds for suspension or expulsion from public school.)
Conflict between students is not always the same thing as bullying, Haynes added, saying there is a way to change behaviors, as well as help kids make it through. The more support, “the more lives we are going to be able to save,” she said.
Coram said he was proud to sponsor the bill in the Senate.
“These are issues I’ve worked on for years and years. This is simply assisting the hard work the Hayneses and the Padillas have put into this. They’re kind of my heroes for what they’re doing. I’m not sure every family could dedicate themselves to what they’ve taken on,” Coram said.
The Haynes family advocated for the bill and also have maintained PEER Kindness. Padilla’s parents, Rick and Jeanine also began advocacy work after the devastating loss of Jack, who was 15 when he died in 2019.
Coram said he likes the bill’s provisions that direct education toward those who bully, rather than only addressing their victims.
“It’s a foundation, but it’s a good start. … This is changing a thought pattern for life,” he said.
The stakeholder policy for anti-bullying measures is to be updated next year and Maya Haynes said she is looking forward to all stakeholders being invited, including students who had testified in support of the bill.
“There was not a dry eye on the Senate Education Committee floor when we testified. … We are on a mission,” Haynes said, adding that legislators need constituents’ help to address the problems bullying poses.
She hopes that Colorado can become a model for that.
“I would love for people to look at Colorado and say ‘We need to do what they are doing, because they are doing such a good job.’ Kids have the answers. Peer-to-peer contact is really how things are going to change, because they care what their friends think,” Haynes said.
“There are no innocent bystanders. If you stand by and watch it happen, you’re part of the problem. So we need up-standers.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.