Nebraska lawmaker presents task force recommendations to improve school safety

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A Nebraska lawmaker on Monday presented four recommendations to improve school safety, the result of a task force that formed after last year’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Lynne Walz

State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Legislative Bill 516, proposed by State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, would implement recommendations from the state’s School Safety Task Force. Then-Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt and Walz, who was chair of the Education Committee at the time, led the group.

The task force’s legislative recommendations are:

  • Hiring a regional specialist in the northeast, southeast, central and western regions of the state to provide tailored support and increased training.
  • Appropriating general funds to support the Safe2HelpNE anonymous reporting hotline once federal funding ends in 2024.
  • Creating a $15 million grant program related to security infrastructure such as surveillance equipment, door-locking systems or double-entry doors. 
  • Establishing a $5 million grant program so local health departments or educational service units could hire mental health practitioners or school psychologists.

Walz said the response during and after the shooting in Uvalde, where 19 students and two teachers were killed, “really put a spotlight on safety, security and preparedness practices.”

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

Law enforcement officers stand near a memorial at Robb Elementary School following a mass shooting on May 26, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. According to reports, 19 students and two adults were killed, with the gunman fatally shot by law enforcement. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Walz called for the task force two days after the May 24 shooting in Texas. Law enforcement, city leaders, public and private school educators and parents also participated in the group.

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The bill’s fiscal note estimates funding Safe2Help would cost $870,000. The salary for one regional specialist is slightly more than $115,000.

Walz said she knows the price tag is large but said the Legislature is in a position to make a “real investment” in students’ safety.

Positive school culture

Erik Wilson, director of student services and safety for Norfolk Public Schools, who testified Monday, said schools have a baseline of recommendations issued by the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. These include locking classroom doors from within and installing hardware that could implement full-perimeter lockdowns. 

Wilson said some of these measures do not exist in Nebraska schools. 

However, Wilson said, it’s not because school officials feel they’re unnecessary but because the state has not prioritized the changes or offered funding.

The Norfolk district hired Wilson to address safety, but he noted that not every school is “lucky enough” to have a staff member with that focus.

“LB 516 directive to create regionally focused specialists will allow for all schools to have access to safety specialists to help drive safety changes within their district,” Wilson said.

Jason Wiese with the Nebraska State Education Association said these specialists could also create region-specific recommendations and provide continuity across the state.

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

This, he said, adds to a positive school culture.

“Our Nebraska students deserve that support,” Wiese said.

Both Wilson and Weise served on the safety task force. The task force stated in October that it would recommend nonlegislative recommendations by April.

‘Life-saving legislation’

Diana Schmidt manages the Safe2Help hotline with Boys Town and said it serves 48% of the state’s population (the goal is 100%). 

Most tips revolve around bullying, suicide and drugs, Schmidt said, which have led to school violence prevention and decreased bullying.

“By advancing LB 516, you can give students and school staff the peace of mind that will allow them to focus on learning and ensure parents can feel confident that their children are safe in our schools,” Schmidt said. “I urge you to consider this life-saving legislation.”

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

John Skretta, the administrator for Educational Service Unit 6 headquartered in Milford, Nebraska, testified in support on behalf of various organizations. These include the Educational Service Units Coordinating Council, Greater Nebraska Schools Association, Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, Nebraska Council of School Administrators, Nebraska Association of School Boards and Schools Taking Action for Nebraska Children’s Education.

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

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

Layers of safety

Jeremy Ekeler, associate director of education policy with the Nebraska Catholic Conference, testified in support as well. He said school safety is like “layers of Swiss cheese” rather than a panacea, with best practices always evolving. 

Though mental health was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ekeler noted the crisis has worsened and said providing more support for mental health services will be an additional layer.

Walz said she will introduce an amendment to clarify that nonpublic schools would be covered by a regional specialist and eligible for the grant programs. She added that if the committee approves the bill, she will likely prioritize it, which would ensure its debate by the full Legislature.

“I’ve been very focused on ensuring that nonpublic schools are included here because I don’t want to see them put in vulnerable and unsafe situations,” Walz said. “Every student in our state deserves to be safe, and that’s what this amendment is doing.”

The committee took no official action following the hearing.

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