Attempt to clarify teachers' ability to physically intervene with disruptive students falls short

Sen. Mike Groene in debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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July 30, 2020 - 6:07pm

A proposal to clarify teachers’ legal rights to intervene physically with disruptive students failed in the Legislature Thursday.

The proposal allowing teachers and other school personnel to intervene physically with disruptive students was supported by the state teachers union and other school groups. It was opposed by others, including the Omaha Public Schools and advocates for students with disabilities. Sen. Mike Groene, chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee and chief sponsor of the bill, said the state has failed school personnel.

“Guess what we’ve done to our teachers and our school employees? No policy, no training. They’re out there trying to do the best they can with no guidance from us. We owe them some help,” Groene said.

Sen. Justin Wayne tried to kill the bill, comparing its legal protections for school personnel to those for police.

“We’ve seen the problems between many different communities as it relates to police and community relations, and we are going to create that same dynamic between schools, districts, communities and parents,” Wayne said.

Sen. Dave Murman said a lack of clarity in current law is leading to bad results.

“Teachers are hesitant to react and pressured to do nothing when there are serious disruptions in the classroom because schools are afraid of lawsuits. Too many students have been placed in danger, educators have been injured, and enough learning time has been lost,” Murman said.

Sen. Matt Hansen said his experience working in three different elementary schools in Lincoln didn’t square with all the complaints about disruptive students.

“Maybe I just had the best three elementary schools in town with the best three principals, the best three administrations backing them up. But student discipline didn’t seem to be an issue. We just didn’t see this. There wasn’t this lawless chaos in the classrooms,” Hansen said.

Critics of the bill claimed that schools would use physical force  disproportionately against minority and disabled students. Groene said the bill would prevent that.

“We are going to change that. We are going to create training and standards that they have to follow. They’re going to have a policy that every parent in north Omaha knows – everybody knows,” he said.

But Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh said Groene’s bill, LB147, would reinforce existing discrimination.

“I have never supported LB147. And I don’t believe that you can make a bill that institutionalizes racism and discrimination better. You need to start over,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Sue Crawford said a Nebraska Supreme Court decision already protects teacher’s rights to physically intervene with disruptive students, and pleaded with administrators to make that clear.

“Make sure that you have this understanding, and that you provide clarity in your communications with your teachers about the protections that exist for them in current law that allow them to do their job, knowing they have these legal protections,” Crawford said.

That 1999 Nebraska Supreme Court decision said although Nebraska law prohibits corporal punishment in schools, corporal punishment does not include physical control that is, “intended to preserve order in the schools or intended to protect persons or property from harm.”

After three hours of debate, Groene move to cut off debate and vote on the bill – a move that requires 33 votes. He got only 32, with 15 senators opposed, thus killing his proposal for the year.

Thursday afternoon, Groene tried to block a move to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day and Columbus Day.

“Columbus Day is Columbus Day. It means a lot to the Italians and their heritage. You can like the man or not like the man, but what he did was equivalent to landing on the moon,” he said.

Sen. Tom Brewer, himself a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, opposed Groene’s motion. Brewer said the original version of the bill would have removed Columbus’s name entirely from the holiday. But he said at the public hearing on the bill, Italian Americans and Native Americans had both expressed respect for each other, and the result was a compromise. Brewer asked his colleagues not to fight over the amendment.

“We go through a lot of things here that probably needs the time and the effort put into it. I would hope this really isn’t it here. Let’s bring this to a close, make a decision and move on, because we have better things to do than fight over this,” Brewer said.

Groene’s amendment was defeated on a vote of 25-6. Senators then gave the bill second-round approval on a voice vote.



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