Nebraska State Legislator Presents Task Force Recommendations to Improve School Safety

LINCOLN. On Monday, the Nebraska state legislator presented four recommendations to improve school safety, the result of a task force formed in the wake of last year’s shooting in Uvalda, Texas.

Bill 516, proposed by State Senator Lynn Walz of Fremont, would implement the recommendations of the State Task Force on School Safety. The group was led by then Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt and Walz, who at the time was chairman of the education committee.

Legislative recommendations of the task force:

  • Hire a regional specialist in the northeast, southeast, central and western regions of the state to provide individual support and professional development.
  • Allocation of general funds to support the Safe2HelpNE Anonymous Messaging Hotline after the end of federal funding in 2024.
  • Establishing a $15 million grant program related to security infrastructure such as surveillance equipment, door lock systems, or double entry doors.
  • Create a $5 million grant program to enable local health or education departments to hire practicing psychiatrists or school psychologists.

Walz said the response during and after the Uvalde shooting, where 19 students and two teachers were killed, “really brought attention to safety and preparedness practices.”

“The fact of the matter is, none of us want to believe that something like this is going to happen here,” Walz said. “But we’ve had a few incidents and we need to be prepared for the future.”

Walz called the task force two days after the May 24 shooting in Texas. The group also included law enforcement, city officials, public and private school teachers, and parents.

The bill’s financial note estimated that Safe2Help’s funding would cost $870,000. The salary of one regional specialist is just over $115,000.

Walz said she knows the price is high, but said the Legislature is in a position to make a “real investment” in student safety.

Positive school culture

Eric Wilson, director of student services and safety for Norfolk Public Schools, who testified on Monday, said schools have a baseline of advice issued by the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. These include locking classroom doors from the inside and installing hardware that can secure the entire perimeter.

Wilson said some of these measures don’t exist in Nebraska schools.

However, according to Wilson, this is not because school officials see them as unnecessary, but because the state is not prioritizing change or offering funding.

Norfolk County hired Wilson to handle security issues, but he noted that not every school is “lucky enough” to have such an employee.

“LB 516 to create Regional Specialists will allow all schools to have access to safety specialists to help make changes to safety in their district,” Wilson said.

Jason Wiese of the Nebraska Education Association said these professionals can also create region-specific recommendations and ensure statewide continuity.

Wiese, who previously worked as a social science teacher and coach at Arlington Public Schools, said mentally healthy students are more likely to go to school ready to learn, actively participate in school activities, and use appropriate problem-solving strategies.

This, he says, contributes to a positive school culture.

“Our Nebraska students deserve this kind of support,” Wiese said.

Both Wilson and Wise served on the Security Task Force. In October, the task force said it would recommend non-legislative recommendations by April.

“Life Saving Legislation”

Diana Schmidt runs the Safe2Help hotline in Boys Town and says it serves 48% of the state’s population (against a 100% target).

According to Schmidt, most of the advice is about bullying, suicide, and drugs, which has resulted in preventing school violence and reducing bullying.

“By promoting LB 516, you can give students and school staff the peace of mind that allows them to focus on their studies, and parents can be sure that their children are safe in our schools,” said Schmidt. “I urge you to consider this vital law.”

Schmidt added that Lincoln Public Schools will join the program “in the near future.”

John Skretta, Administrator of Educational Services Division 6 headquartered in Milford, Nebraska, testified in support on behalf of various organizations. These include the Coordinating Board of Education Services, the Greater Nebraska Schools Association, the Nebraska Rural Public Schools Association, the Nebraska Board of School Administrators, the Nebraska Association of School Boards and Schools Educating Nebraska Children.

“LB 516 has the unanimous support of K-12 education representatives,” Skretta said.

Brian Halstead, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Education, also testified in support of Walz’s proposal.

Security levels

Jeremy Eckeler, associate director of educational policy for the Nebraska Catholic Conference, also testified in support. He said school safety is like “layers of Swiss cheese” rather than a panacea, and best practices are constantly evolving.

While mental health was a problem before the COVID-19 pandemic, Eckeler noted that the crisis has worsened and said that providing additional support to mental health services would be an additional layer.

Waltz said she would make an amendment clarifying that non-public schools would be served by a regional specialist and eligible for grant programs. She added that if the committee approves the bill, she will likely give it priority, which will ensure it is debated in the full Legislative Assembly.

“I’ve been very focused on getting non-public schools included because I don’t want them to be in a vulnerable and insecure position,” Waltz said. “Every student in our state deserves to be safe, and that’s exactly what this amendment does.”

The committee took no formal action after the hearing.

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