Anonymous Reporting System Proposed for School Safety Concerns

Feb. 9, 2021, 5:34 p.m. ·

Sen. Matt Williams testifies before the Education Committee on Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

The state would set up a system for students, teachers and others to report safety threats anonymously, under a proposal that got a public hearing before the Legislature’s Education Committee Tuesday.

Sen. Matt Williams introduced the bill to create a reporting system which would be known as Safe2HelpNE. He said it could be used to report everything from threats of suicide to bullying, drug use, and threats against property. Williams said the idea is similar to systems in other states, but with a difference.

“The Nebraska Safety and Security reporting system proposed in LB322 is similar to programs created in several states, the prototype (of) which has been the safe to tell initiative in Colorado that was created following the Columbine shooting event. However there is an important difference between LB322 and programs in other states in that information provided through the report line goes to those trained in crisis management rather than directly to law enforcement,” Williams said.

In Nebraska, a similar pilot program has been operating for the last year in 40 Douglas County schools, with reports being handled by a crisis team located at Boys Town. Williams said 81 percent of reports have been handled without involving law enforcement.

Ginny Gohr, director of the hotline at Boys Town, said so far they’ve fielded nearly 500 reports, with concerns about students thinking of suicide ranking first, and drug use second, followed by other concerns including inappropriate behavior by teachers and four threats of violence against schools.

“Student(s), family members and faculty use the system because it’s anonymous. They know they want to help, but they’re too afraid to get too far involved. So being anonymous has made a big difference with these tips, reports that we get,” Gohr said.

The proposal calls for a centralized group like the Boys Town team to handle reports submitted by phone, text, website or email. The team would then contact the school’s threat assessment team to discuss how to proceed. Participation by schools would be voluntary. The system is estimated to cost about $900,000 per year.

Representatives of school groups supported the bill, including Mark Adler, superintendent of Ralston Public Schools. Adler talked about how such a system could have helped his own son, Reid, who committed suicide five years ago when he was in ninth grade.

“The night Reid took his life, Reid shared his intention with at least six Ralston High School students. All those kids believed they had talked Reid into a better place and they did not contact an adult or an emergency service. Unfortunately the guilt of Reid’s decision was so overwhelming that Reid made a permanent decision for a temporary problem. If just one of those students would have alerted another adult or took advantage of a service like Safe2Help, I’m certain we would still have Reid today,” Adler said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks expressed concern that while the main thrust of the bill was to address students who are in crisis, the language of the proposal repeatedly refers to “threats.”

“I’m just hoping my comments don’t in any way come across as anything but supportive of the work of caring for kids who are suicidal. My concern is clearly about those that already have so many avenues to get in trouble with the law. And that’s what I’m concerned about is the school to prison pipeline,” Pansing Brooks said.

Similar concerns were expressed about another bill heard by the Education Committee Tuesday dealing with disruptive students. The proposal by Sen. Dave Murman would require training school personnel in behavioral awareness and intervention training. It would also say teachers and other school personnel could use “reasonable physical intervention” to safely manage the behavior of a student to prevent that student from injuring himself or others.

Supporters of similar bills in recent years have argued that teachers’ ability to protect themselves and others, already recognized in a Nebraska Supreme Court decision, should be made explicit in state statute.

Those previous bills have been backed by the Nebraska State Education Association union, citing cases where teachers were hit, kicked, bitten and punched by students. However, NSEA did not indicate support for this year’s proposal. A question to the organization about why was not immediately answered.

The only person other than Murman who spoke in favor of the proposal was Mark Bonkiewicz of Omaha.

“Currently there are a small percentage of disruptive students whose behavior causes an interruption in learning for other students and occasionally place other human beings in a dangerous environment. Without proper decorum and discipline in a classroom, the teaching environment is replaced with chaos, akin to the inmates running the asylum,” Bonkiewicz said.

As in the past, the proposal was opposed by advocates for students with disabilities. Brad Meurrens of Disability Rights Nebraska said nationally, disabled students represent 13 percent of school populations, but are involved in 80 percent of cases involving the use of restraints.

Sen. Terrell McKinney, who represents a largely Black district in north Omaha expressed concern that physical force would also be used disproportionately against racial minorities.

“If this bill is to go through, a huge percentage of the individuals that will be restrained will probably come from my community or similar communities across the state. And the individuals doing the restraining won’t look like them,” McKinney said.

The committee took no action on the bills Tuesday.