Controversial Student Discipline Bill Faces Stiff Opposition Again

Feb. 26, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

LB 673 in the Nebraska Legislature would give teachers the ability to "use reasonable physical intervention to safely manage the behavior of a student.”

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A contentious legislative bill in the Nebraska Legislature looks to shield teachers from liability when using force to stop disorderly students. Opponents say the bill, LB 673, targets minority students and children with disabilities and similar proposed legislation in the past has failed.

Deb Rasmussen is a counselor at Goodrich Middle School in Lincoln.

“It's hard. It's nerve-racking,” Rasmussen said. “When I started 35 years ago this wasn't the way it was. But I'm scared. I never was scared before that."

Rasmussen said there have been several incidents over the last few years where she has put herself in harm’s way. During an interview conducted last year concerning a similar bill, she said one of those incidents didn’t end well and has had long lasting effects.

“I ended up being taken down, slammed my head on a marble floor they got their hands in my hair and beat my head against the floor and ripped out my hair,” Rasmussen said. “I suffered a concussion and ultimately a traumatic brain injury.”

Rasmussen has lost some cognitive function because of the incident. Now, she’s cautious when it comes to students who are causing trouble or intervening in fights that break out in school.

“I get scared and the first thing I say is don't hit my head,” Rasmussen said. “I mean, I'm so worried about because I've had too many concussions.”

Rasmussen said she’s not alone. She’s seen first-hand other teachers she works with experience the same types of things.

“Sideswiped, concussion and the student was placed back in her room right away,” Rasmussen said. “And I'm watching another teacher right now across the hall from me get bit and her clothes ripped off, beat against a table.”

Rasmussen said teachers feel helpless, unsure what they can do when in situations like this. Jenni Benson is the President of the Nebraska State Education Association, a teacher’s union. She said she’s heard from hundreds of teachers with similar stories.

Benson said teachers are being told that it’s already written in case law – a Supreme Court ruling from 1999 – that they can intervene, but they are often told by their school districts that they cannot as it’s not written into state law. That’s why Benson said legislation is needed from the state.

“We have got to have some really clear, very defined behavioral expectations that all districts let our teachers know,” Benson said.

Benson said teachers need the ability to protect other students and themselves from students who cause trouble in the classroom.

“When a teacher stands and tells me that her nose is being broken by a student and her three paraprofessionals stood and watched because they were told, “never touch a student,” Benson said.

One worry is districts don’t want to get sued by parents and teachers don’t want to get fired by the districts. LB 673 currently in the Nebraska Legislature would pay for annual training for teachers using state lottery money. It would also allow “teachers and other school personnel to use reasonable physical intervention to safely manage the behavior of a student.” It also protects teachers from administrative discipline or legal action.

One criticism of the bill is that students with disabilities make up about 12% of K-12 students, but they account for 66% of students who are secluded at school for disciplinary reasons and 71% of students who are restrained. That’s according to the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

Michelle Zephier’s 14-year-old son Dylan was born with Down Syndrome and autism. She said her son has been to three different school districts – Omaha Public Schools, District 66 and Bellevue Public Schools.

“Teachers are supposed to be trained,” Zephier said. “But you can see the marks on my son's body are on his neck. They're on places of his body where the restraint techniques are not allowed.”

Because of what she calls blatant abuse, she decided to home school him to protect him.

“Teachers are holding him down, grabbing his arm, his legs, they're grabbing his neck,” Zephier said.

She said Dylan was told he was going to jail to get him to listen.

“He has been secluded for months at a time up to eight times a day, eight times a day being secluded and restrained as a punishment for his behavior,” Zephier said.

Research also shows minority students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students. One opponent of LB 673 said during a recent public hearing that it is a “racist bill,” because of that fact. Nebraska Senator Mike Groene represents district 42 in Lincoln County. He previously brought up a similar bill last session which failed. He said the communities he represents have the same issues as Omaha and Lincoln where there are more minority students.

“We have diversity (in North Platte) but it's not kids of race who are beating up the teachers,” Groene said. “It's Caucasian children. It's happening in small towns. This has nothing to do with race. This has to do with behavior.

Groene said LB 673 needs to pass to protect teachers and students.

“We have to give assurance to our teachers that if they step in and do the right thing, that they will not lose their job,” Groene said.

He said no matter how much training teachers receive on de-escalation, there will always be times where students take it too far. And teachers need to be able to manage their classrooms.

“The people they rely on to protect their children while they're in their building have been disarmed and that's not a good thing,” Groene said.

Previously NSEA sponsored bills similar to LB 673, but this session they are backing other bills which fund teachers training and focus on tracking student’s discipline. Senator Dave Murman, who is sponsoring LB 673, has been in contact with NSEA on his bill.

“So I have had discussions with NSEA,” Murman said. “They said they weren't planning on testifying on the bill this year. I was a little surprised that they didn't plan on testifying in favor of (LB 673).

When contacted for comment, the NSEA wouldn’t take a stance on LB 673, instead saying they are backing other education bills, like LB 529, LB 154 and LB 322. However, none of these legislative bills protect teachers or allow them to “use reasonable physical intervention with students.”