Anecdotes of physical assault battled anecdotes of racial discrimination in the Unicameral on Tuesday — all in support or opposition to a bill some Panhandle teachers and administrators said wouldn’t make a difference either way.
LB 147 was originally called the restraint bill. It received criticism, specifically for language that allowed teachers to use restraints against students acting out. While the amended bill has several hurdles to clear before reaching the governor’s desk, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte told the Star-Herald he’d garnered enough votes to advance it into the next procedural phase.
It’s unclear whether this version of the bill will become law. Regardless, the questions about its efficacy and need remain unanswered by many.
Groene’s first push to update the Student Disciplinary Act stemmed from a 2014 incident in North Platte, the first of many anecdotes in question.
In February 2014, a teacher, Mike Woodhead, followed a third-grade student to the school’s office, after the student had allegedly acted out. Woodhead dragged the 8-year-old student 90 feet from the office to the time-out room.
The school’s superintendent said Woodhead violated school policy prohibiting student restraint and — two months later — Woodhead was notified he was being terminated. But it wouldn’t stick.
That summer, after 15 hours of testimony and deliberation, the school board voted 4-2 in favor of keeping Woodhead on staff. Woodhead resigned in 2017, telling The North Platte Telegraph he wanted to start a new chapter in life.
“Humans lose it. He lost it,” Groene told the Associated Press in 2017. “Would he have lost it if he had guidelines telling him what to do?”
While the 2017 bill died, it triggered the Nebraska State Education Association, Nebraska’s teacher union, to get involved.
The union, or NSEA, put out a voluntary survey to its 28,000 members, over 6,000 of who responded. Ultimately, NSEA would come to support Groene’s bills to amend the Student Discipline Act. NSEA asked “Have discipline and behavior problems in your school increased over the past few years?” and “Are unruly and disruptive students the biggest problem you face in your classroom?”
About 81% of the 7,200 respondents to the first questions said “Yes,” according to the NSEA. About 61% of the 6,200 respondents said “Yes” to the second question.
The survey also collected over 100 comments from teachers about instances of violence — ranging from empty threats to spitting to outright assault — in their classrooms. NSEA did not provide the names of teachers, students or the locations of the alleged incidents.
In one comment, a teacher told NSEA that a student with a mental disability and a history of hurting teachers attacked, causing the teacher to receive physical therapy. The teacher went on to say that school protocols had not been followed when the student was left alone with the teacher.
“There is no training set up for us to deal with students with severe disabilities and who are violent. This child has no business being in this environment. We do not have the resources to help him. All we do is babysit him,” the teacher wrote to NSEA.
While this is one of the more extreme anecdotes in the voluntary survey, there is no way of knowing how bad the problem of student-on-teacher violence is. That’s exactly the problem that NSEA President Jenni Benson said she hopes new legislation can address.
Benson said the problem, as best it can be identified, is a lack of training and a lack of data on the issue of student-on-teacher violence.
A bill to address the lack of data in Nebraska was introduced in 2019 Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne — but wasn’t passed.
Some data does exist on another statistic regarding student discipline in the U.S.
Black, Hispanic and mentally disabled students are punished at higher rates compared to white students.
According to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Education, 80 percent of students who were physically restrained in Nebraska are also covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. A ProPublica database found that Black students in Nebraska were over 5 times more likely to be disciplined compared to white students.
The fear of disproportionate discipline led Wayne and other senators in Lincoln to argue against Groene’s latest bill. Wayne likened Groene’s bill to granting teachers qualified immunity, a controversial concept in policing that grants officers immunity when using force.
Wayne did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic squeeze and months of nationwide protests after the police killing of George Floyd, Wayne told senators on the floor Tuesday, things had changed.
In this context, despite the new bill addressing calls for training, the debates seem irrelevant, according to Rose Godinez, legal and policy counsel at the ACLU of Nebraska.
“What is the emergency here?” Godinez said. “The legislature has very little time left over that, we believe, should be dedicated to COVID-19 public health issues.”
Instead, Godinez said that a study should be done to address the lack of information about student-to-teacher violence. She added that any solution should include input from parents of disproportionately affected groups and should start from a place of mental health, not punishment.
Panhandle teacher Edward Montgomery, who has taught for 36 years, said he recalls participating in the NSEA survey in 2017, but otherwise, Groene’s bill wasn’t on his radar.
“I didn’t know it was still around,” Montgomery said.
After reading the bill, Montgomery felt it tries to address a problem that might not exist. Even on the de-escalation training, Montgomery said the issue was trivial.
“We were always taught and trained that we were allowed to use the amount of force necessary to defend ourselves and no more,” Montgomery said. “That’s been my guideline in four school systems for 35 years.”
He said that the move to codify the rule doesn’t bother him; he just wonders what the issue is that it’s trying to address. He speculated that it could be a problem at bigger schools.
Minatare Superintendent Tim Cody said he was opposed to the bill because “It is seeking a solution to a problem that may or may not exist in every school system.”
Banner Superintendent Evelyn Browne said she agreed that more training would be useful, but that any change should focus on preventative measures.
Still, Montgomery said he’d like to see more data.
“I like data — I don’t like the ‘what-about-isms’ that we have. For me as a teacher, there is no doubt in my mind that if I have to defend myself or defend another student I will do that. ... I don’t know that I need that law to protect my rights as a teacher.”
Justin Garcia is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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