School discipline debated; dozens of bills passed

April 24, 2017, 5:35 a.m. ·

Senaors listen as bills get final reading Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposed law to allow teachers to use force to restrain disruptive students sparked debate in the Nebraska Legislature Monday. And lawmakers gave final approval to more than four dozen bills.

Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Education Committee, proposed the bill allowing teachers to use force. “I brought this bill in response to many conversations I’ve had with parents, teachers and administrators about the breakdown of discipline in the classroom. The fear of being assaulted, the fear of lawsuits if they act to protect students or other teachers or themselves. Parents’ concerns about violence toward their children,” Groene said.

Groene said a survey by the Nebraska State Education Association found 82 percent of teachers said discipline problems have increased in recent years.

Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln, a former school superintendent, opposed the bill. Baker said everyone wants teachers to have control in their classrooms. But he said the bill could result in discrimination. “Students most likely to be subjected to physical handling by staff are the disabled, the minority students, and the emotionally disturbed. Schools today are dealing with more students with mental health issues than in the past,” Baker said. “This legislature would be well advised to support mental health support services for youth whose families cannot afford these services.”

Baker also said a 1999 Nebraska Supreme Court decision says existing law allows teachers and administrators to use physical contact short of corporal punishment to preserve order and control in schools. But Groene said that wasn’t good enough, and LB595, his bill, is necessary. “A court case can be overturned or can be interpreted differently by the next judge. That is why (LB)595 is so important to codify, into law, what the Supreme Court has said,” he declared.

Sen. Ernie Chambers disputed that. “I doubt that there is anybody other than Sen. Groene who would think that a judge could overturn a Supreme Court decision. Even when the Legislature enacts a law, do you all know who has the final word on what that law means? The Supreme Court,” Chambers said.

Sen. Lynne Walz, a former teacher, also opposed the bill. Walz suggested factors like a lack of parental support or poverty could lead students to act out. “This does nothing to address the root of the problem. It fixes nothing. Do you think that all kids are born to be bad? Or do you think that sometimes life’s circumstances that are beyond their control may sometimes have an effect on how a child behaves?” Walz asked.

The bill says any teacher or administrator defending him or herself, a student, or protecting school property would not be subject to legal action or discipline if they were acting in a reasonable manner.

The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a first-round vote on the bill. Groene said he would survey his colleagues to see if he had enough support to bring the bill up again this year.

Also Monday, senators voted final passage with little or no debate for more than four dozen bills.

Among them were measures to create a task force to recommend solutions for troubled Whiteclay, Nebraska, known for alcohol sales to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Another bill would keep political parties on the ballot if they have at least 10,000 members, and not require them to have gotten at least 5 percent of the vote in the last general election. The bill is expected to help the Libertarian Party maintain ballot access. Sen. Laura Ebke, the bill’s sponsor and the only registered Libertarian in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, predicted it will be good for all parties, including the Republicans and Democrats. “I think it’s a good thing because it forces the other parties to be more competitive. You get more ideas out there. They don’t have a monopoly -- or a duopoly some would suggest -- but they don’t have a monopoly on the voter,” Ebke said.

Another bill approved would require people who perform mammograms to inform patients if they have dense breast tissue, which could affect future treatment choices.

A bill merging the Department of Roads and the Department of Aeronautics into a Department of Transportation got final approval, as did one merging the Division of Veterans Homes into the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Felons would have their voting rights restored upon completing their sentences under another measure. And people requesting or administering lifesaving drugs in cases of drug overdoses would be given certain immunities under another bill that passed.

The bills now go to Gov. Pete Ricketts for his signing or possible veto. Tuesday morning, the Legislature is scheduled to begin debating the state budget for the next two years.