Debating Discipline In Nebraska's Schools

How a teacher maintains order in the classroom is becoming the center of a statewide debate on punishment in schools. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)
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March 1, 2017 - 6:45am

Any educator will tell you every student has a right to learn, and that can only happen in a school environment if a teacher keeps an orderly classroom. But that’s becoming the center of a statewide debate on disciplining students.

For this topic, you needn’t look much further than Nathan Hale Middle School in Omaha. Last year, teachers continually complained of widespread discipline problems, including assaults on staff and other students. That culminated in teachers across the Omaha Public School district voicing their concerns at several school board meetings about the uptick in violence. Katrina Jacobberger was one of them.

"Safety is a concern, but it shouldn’t be something you worry about when you go to school in the morning,” Jacobberger said.

Many blamed the rise in violence on the school’s overpopulation, but it raised a question: What legal rights does a teacher have to deal with a disruptive student in the classroom?

"I think there’s a lot of fear where people aren’t sure exactly what they have the right to say or who they have the right to talk to or how they are able to address the situation,” Jacobberger said.

That ambiguity has caught the attention of state lawmakers like Senator Mike Groene of North Platte. He’s proposed legislation that would authorize teachers to use physical force or restraint against disruptive classroom students. At a hearing on the bill before the education committee, he said LB 595 is needed at a time when more students show up in the classroom with no boundaries of behavior, and too few consequences for it.

Senator Mike Groene of North Platte proposed legislation that would authorize teachers to use physical force or restraint against disruptive classroom students. (Courtesy photo)


“I introduced this legislation because I believe education starts and strives in the classroom. The majority of teachers are in the profession because they have the gift of teaching," Groene said. "They face a lot of scrutiny from parents and the community and they want to teach. They can’t teach if they don’t have control of their classroom.”

Nancy Fulton, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, agrees.

“They want help. They want help in their classrooms,” Fulton said.

The NSEA is a union representing 28,000 public school teachers. The organization spoke at the hearing as a proponent of Groene’s bill. Fulton says following the introduction of LB 595, the union sent out a survey to its members to gauge their opinion on the topic. The response was overwhelming.

“We had 300 responses within 17 minutes. Within 3 hours, we had 3000 responses. Within 4 days, we had 7,000 responses. We knew we hit a hot topic with our members," Fulton said. "Eighty percent of our members say they are noticing more disruption in the classroom.”

But how to deal with that disruption didn’t necessarily include physical force. Some teachers responded by asking for more counseling services for students and training on how to handle disruptive students.

Karen Haase is an attorney at KSB School Law in Lincoln. She's testified against the bill.

“This was, although well-intentioned, a really bad idea,” Haase said. “We’re talking about a small minority of students, in a small minority of schools.”

Haase said teachers are already empowered by state statue to use whatever force is necessary to maintain order, to maintain safety, and property. She said the real problem lies elsewhere.

“So we already have that ability of teachers to put hands on kids if they need to. The problem and some of the horror stories I think Senator Groene and some of the other people are talking about is we do have a small minority of kids who are mentally ill and so when you touch someone on the arm to get their attention, they can lash out. That can be frightening,” Haase said.

One of hundreds of responses by NSEA members after the union sent out a survey to its members to gauge their opinion on LB 595. (Graphic by Ben Bohall, NET News).

Hasse added the majority of student outbursts have to do with that small minority of students, and the focus should be on placing them in classes and environments better suited to their needs. She’s not alone in that viewpoint.

Reece Peterson is a professor of special education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“My concern is that it’s extremely dangerous,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the bill has loopholes and doesn't take into consideration the dangers associated with restraining students. That’s included serious harm to both teachers and students, and sometimes death. 

“I continue to learn of these kinds of incidents and I can’t imagine having a teacher who isn’t superbly trained to do this to remove a student. Moreover, the bill really focused on having the teacher in that classroom do this,” Peterson said.

Senator Groene has said he’ll take those concerns into consideration and amend the bill moving through the committee process. Meanwhile, the NSEA is advocating for an interim study to identify needs for training with teachers, and they stress there can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.

As for teacher Katrina Jacobberger, she doesn’t think the way the bill is written addresses the root of safety and discipline concerns in the classroom at all. She hopes school districts will begin to add more training and information for how teachers should handle disruptive behavior in the classroom, to keep both students and educators safe.

“It’s clear that this is a question on a lot of peoples’ minds. Teachers, educators need to know that they feel safe. When it comes down to it, there are some things that are more concerning to a person’s daily job. It’s not negotiating a salary and a contract, it’s knowing you’re safe when you go to work,” Jacobberger said.



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