Committee advances bill allowing armed school staff

Feb. 29, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Jen Day during debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Jen Day during debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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School boards could let teachers and other staff carry guns in school, under a proposal advanced by the Legislature’s Education Committee Thursday. And senators advanced a proposal aimed at helping native American tribal members experiencing mental health crises.

The proposal allowing school personnel to be armed is part of a package of education bills advanced by the committee. It would also allow off-duty or retired law enforcement personnel to carry firearms in school. While schools in urban areas may have armed resource officers, Sen. Dave Murman, chair of the Education Committee, said the measure could be helpful in rural areas, where the nearest law enforcement agency could be many miles away.

“It is up to the local school boards as to what kind of protection they want to have in their school. And there are retired military, retired law enforcement and others that have been trained, for instance through the concealed carry, and also… that type of training is still available. So it's totally up to a local school board to decide what kind of protection how much protection and who is responsible for protecting the school with a firearm,” Murman said.

Sen. Lynn Walz, a member of the committee, said she supports the idea of letting off-duty law enforcement personnel carry guns in schools, but has reservations about others.

“I'm trying to make a distinction between an off-duty cop having the ability to carry a weapon on school premises, as opposed to a teacher who -- really, their number one job is to be educating kids in the classroom, not carrying weapons and making that split (second) decision on ‘Is this a time when I need to use my gun, or is this not a

time?’” Walz said.

Walz and Sens. Justin Wayne and Danielle Conrad abstained on the vote to include the gun proposal in the committee package, while Murman and Sens. Fred Meyer, Rita Sanders, Joni Albrecht and Lou Ann Linehan provided enough votes to include it.

The package also contains proposals allowing schools to use construction funds to improve safety infrastructure and easing requirements for teachers to be trained in specific subjects. Walz expressed concern that including the gun proposal could jeopardize the chance to pass those non-controversial measures when the full Legislature debates the package.

“I think that there are going to be many members of the body who are not going to agree with the concept of allowing teachers to have guns in schools,” she said.

But Murman said he thinks the package tries to address priorities like school safety and teacher retention, and is in good shape.

“It was important to the majority of the committee to get as much into this package of our priorities as we could, and I think we have the support on the floor for the total package with all of the bills we have in it,” he said.

In debate by the full Legislature Thursday, senators considered a measure that would require law enforcement and hospitals to recognize when tribal courts have judged someone to need emergency protective custody if they’re having a mental health crisis.

Sen. Jen Day, chair of the State-Tribal Relations Committee, said native American tribes have identified the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jane Raybould, as a priority. Day described the kind of situations it’s intended to address.

“We're talking about children and adults who are potentially suicidal, who are extremely violent towards other people -- domestic violence. We are talking about extreme mental health crisis situations. These people are turned away and sent home back to the reservation because no one recognizes the order that was put in place by a tribal judge,” Day said.

Sen. Joni Albrecht, whose northeast Nebraska district contains most of the Winnebago and Omaha reservations, said law enforcement personnel in her area were concerned about having to transport patients. Albrecht said that could strain sheriffs’ departments already suffering from shortages, and suggested patients could be treated closer to home.

“The Winnebago Tribe has a beautiful hospital. Perhaps in that facility, they could bring a wing to that particular hospital for mental health. I think it would be easier to bring the doctors in than to have to transport out, because a lot of the people -- even up in the South Sioux City area --when they ask these mental health patients to be transported somewhere, it could be all the way across our state,” Albrecht said.

Sen. Tom Brewer, a member of the Ogalala Sioux tribe, said it would be good for tribes to have facilities to treat mental health patients, but that’s not currently the case. Brewer talked about the challenge facing sheriffs in rural areas that contain or are near to reservations. One such sheriff is his brother Jeff, sheriff in western Nebraska’s Sheridan County.

“One of the things my brother has to deal with that I wish I could give him a solution to is, he says, ‘If no one takes them, what do I do?’ He says, ‘I have no chance. I put them in the jail. I got to protect the public.’ But I think if you've dealt with folks with mental health issues, the answer is not to stick them in a cell by themselves and give them nothing,” Brewer said.

When time came to vote, 25 senators voted to advance the bill -- the minimum number needed. Ten senators voted against it. The bill still faces two more approvals before being sent to the governor.