Allowing schools to arm teachers draws mixed reaction

Feb. 6, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Tom Brewer testifies Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Tom Brewer testifies Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

Nebraska schools would have more options for armed personnel to confront possible shooters under a bill that drew strong support and opposition at a hearing Tuesday.

Sen. Tom Brewer has 28 cosponsors for his bill that would allow school districts to decide if they want to allow staff members to carry guns. Brewer said there were more than 350 shootings in American schools last year, and it can take too long for police to respond.

“Active shooter events are usually over within 10 to 15 minutes. Ten minutes is an eternity for kids trapped in a building with a killer. These incidents tend to go on until the shooter meets up with someone in opposition. I want that opposition to have the ability to be armed and protect the students,” Brewer said.

Zach Kassebaum, superintendent of Lincoln Christian School, supported the proposal, which would require training and a policy for appropriate use of force. Kassebaum said the proposal could meet the needs of private or rural schools.

“Selecting individuals with the right aptitude, temperament and willingness to receive rigorous training -- it's not this picture of emotion that has been created of armed teachers in their classroom walking the hallways with a weapon on their hip,” Kassebaum said.

Pat Ritchie, a 36-year teacher in schools around the state, opposed the bill, which she said could be counterproductive.

“I believe that teachers with guns will be, no pun intended, a trigger for many students who come from violent home lives or neighborhoods. I believe that our young people who are not fully developed with their brains and their emotional responses are going to be tempted with pranks or theft of ammunition or guns,” Ritchie said.

Also testifying against it was Sharon O’Neal, a former Lincoln paraeducator, who listed alternatives for stopping school violence.

“Hardening school environments to prevent unauthorized entry. Ensuring adequate mental health services are available for students and for staff. Working with community partners to implement trauma-informed crisis intervention practices before a person commits an act of violence. Implementing early detection and response to behavioral red flags. And informing families -- perhaps even mandating -- proper secure storage of guns to prevent access by children,” O’Neal said.

In closing testimony, Brewer said letters opposing and supporting the bill showed an urban-rural divide.

“On the opponents’ side, 90 plus percent of them come from Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster (counties). So basically those that have armed security, school resource officers are saying you should not have armed security, and then those who are out where they don't have it, are on the other side of it, and they want it,” he said.

The Education Committee took no immediate action on the bill.

In action by the full Legislature Tuesday, senators advanced a proposal to provide more free school breakfasts and lunches. Under the bill by Sen. Lynne Walz, those meals would be free for all students in high-poverty public or private schools, defined as those where 50 percent or more of students are from families that qualify for free lunches or get Medicaid, SNAP, or TANF benefits. Walz, a former teacher, said those meals are important.

“Our state's prosperity is built on the health and success of its children. Research shows that hunger during childhood can derail proper development, leaving lifelong and negative consequences for cognitive skills, physical and mental health behavior and academic performance. I have firsthand knowledge of this issue as an educator. I saw many kids coming into the classroom who hadn't had anything to eat, and I can tell you, it affected their ability to concentrate and learn in school,” Walz said.

Sen. Brad von Gillern opposed the measure as too broad.

“I am not in any way, shape, or form a fan of free and reduced lunch for families who can afford to pay for their own meals. There are families in Omaha that are living in million-dollar homes and they do not need to be on the free and reduced lunch program or any form of universal lunch program. That's just again, a misappropriation of state and federal funds …and we don't seem to care when it's federal money. It's like it's free money -- just falls out of the sky. But (I’ve) got bad news folks: that still comes out of all of our wallets,” von Gillern said.

Walz said the federal government would pay 80 percent of the cost, and school districts, which could opt out of the program, would pay 20 percent. Senators gave the bill first-round approval on a vote of 33-10, although several said they wanted assurances it would not cost the state any money before they will vote for it again.

In other action, senators also gave first-round approval to a bill that would clarify that if someone undergoes a colonoscopy that finds a polyp that is removed and biopsied, they cannot be charged for that. Sen. Carol Blood, the sponsor, said the Affordable Care Act intended colonoscopies would be free, but some insurance companies are charging hundreds of dollars if something is found. That bill advanced on a vote of 36-6.