Plan for more social workers in schools stalls in Legislature

March 12, 2018, 6:12 a.m. ·

Sen. Lynne Walz, center, discusses social workers in schools (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposal aimed at getting more social workers into the schools to help students and families with mental health problems stalled in the Legislature Monday.

The proposal by Sen. Lynne Walz would put a social worker in each of the state’s 17 educational service units. Those are regional organizations that supply services to the state’s school districts. They are funded by property taxes. But Walz’ proposal would use no government funding at first. Instead, it would not go into effect until $3.6 million in private funding is collected – enough to cover the first three years of the program.

Sen. Sue Crawford supported the proposal. “We have a risk free opportunity to provide this service to our students, to provide this service to our families all across the state for three years. And I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity not only to decide what to do in the future but to reach those kids. Every kid we can reach in the next three years is a kid that will not fall through the cracks that otherwise would,” Crawford said.

Sen. Steve Erdman was opposed. Erdman said the promise of three years of private funding was just a way to get a foot in the door for a new government program. “It’s a slick way to get something through in a year when the budget is tight, because it has no effect on the general fund – this year. But you go down the road and the taxpayers in Nebraska are going to be picking this up,” Erdman predicted.

Walz has said funding for the program is being discussed with potential donors, but she has declined to name them. Sen. John Kuehn said people should be concerned about where the money would come from. “Could a pharmaceutical company be the source of the $3.6 million (in) funds, or a foundation or a trade organization associated with a pharmaceutical company, and that the then implicit understanding is that this serves as a mechanism for increasing access to, and prescribing of pharmaceuticals for children with behavioral disorders anxiety and depression?” Kuehn asked.

Walz said no consideration is being given to soliciting a pharmaceutical company for donations.

Sen. Matt Williams supported the proposal. Williams said it could help situations like one last week where one of his daughter’s Gothenburg High School students was removed an charged with making terroristic threats. Williams also referred to letters fourth grade students from Lexington had written to him, suggesting barbed wire fences around the school so that people couldn’t break in, and stronger windows and doors for safety. Williams said if students don’t feel safe, they won‘t be able to concentrate on learning.

Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Education Committee, opposed the bill. Groene said the proposal typifies the way problems in schools are discussed these days. “We have a problem – yes, folks. Children are mentally ill now. They have behavioral health. They don’t disobey, and if you’re religious, they don’t have a sin nature. They’re mentally ill, Groene said. Referring to the bill, Groene said “It’s well-meaning -- I wanted it on the floor so the public out there listening can understand what’s going on. It’s no longer about reading that we hear about or math or civics. It’s about we gotta have psychologists and social workers and health professionals in our schools. That’s where we’re at in education these days. That’s all I‘ve heard since I became chairman of the Education Committee,” he said.

And Groene said the proposed solution heads in the wrong direction. “More tax dollars. Sticking our nose -- putting more individuals in between the parent authority figure and the child. You wonder why parents have no control over kids? Because the government keeps putting more and more authority figures between them and their children. Kids revolt. They’ve got too many people telling them what to do,” Groene said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, supporting the bill, said opponents were overreacting to something that could help. “The number one issue that the schools have consistently discussed for them is mental health issues. And does this solve this? No. Are some people willing to come in and give a donation to help ESUs to go forward and work on this problem a little bit? Yes. This isn’t something that we have to all to rise up in just total consternation about,” she said.

An attempt to end debate and vote on the bill failed. Walz said she will work on possible changes, including making the proposal a pilot program, or putting a sunset date on it, in hopes of attracting enough support to get it back on the agenda for debate later this year.