Families warn against bill allowing ‘reasonable physical intervention’ in Nebraska schools

Murman says he brought bill back up at request of NSEA

By: - February 28, 2023 9:38 pm

State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, chair of the Education Committee, listens to testimony on one of his bills on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — State Sen. Dave Murman’s latest legislative effort to spell out legal protections for teachers and staff who use “reasonable physical intervention” to manage student behavior ran into familiar opponents during the bill’s public hearing Tuesday.

Parents of students with developmental disabilities, civil rights leaders, school administrators, former teachers and civil rights leaders testified against Legislative Bill 811. They said the measure would risk the safety of students already facing more discipline.

Brad Meurrens with Disability Rights Nebraska testifies before the Education Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Federal studies indicate that students with disabilities and students of color face more frequent discipline in schools, including at the elementary school level. Several people testifying against LB 811 pointed to the potential of increased physical interventions leading to injury or death.

Brad Meurrens, public policy director of Disability Rights of Nebraska, said the bill’s ambiguity puts students with disabilities at risk. Nationally, he said, about 80% of students who get restrained at school have disabilities, although they make up just 13% of the student population.

Murman said LB 811 seeks to clarify that Nebraska’s teachers and staff can physically intervene to protect students and school staffers, a step several testifiers said the law already allows. He said school employees need to know they can step in without fear of losing their jobs.

He pointed to previous testimony, news stories and interim studies sharing teachers’ stories of violent acts taking place in schools, against teachers and students. He said some teachers are quitting the profession because student behaviors aren’t being dealt with adequately.

“Friends, we have got to do something here,” Murman told the Education Committee during an afternoon hearing that lasted about three hours. “These acts of physical aggression have disrupted the learning environment. … We have to let teachers defend themselves.”

A similar bill focused on intervention fell short of passage last year. State senators have been trying to pass something similar for at least eight years. Murman said he brought the bill back this session at the request of the Nebraska State Education Association, the state teachers union.

This year’s bill would allow teachers and other school staff to use “reasonable physical intervention to safely manage the behavior of a student.” It requires school staff to receive behavioral awareness and intervention training by 2026-27, including de-escalation techniques. It diverts more than $2 million in lottery funds for that purpose.

The Nebraska State Education Association
The Nebraska State Education Association on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

Isau Metes, director of advocacy for the NSEA, testified in support of the bill. She said teachers are telling the NSEA they want more training on how to keep students safe. She said LB 811 would allow teachers to stop dangerous situations before they get out of hand. 

“School violence is on the rise across the state,” she said. “I can take a punch. I’m not in fear of my own safety. I’m in fear for students.”

Omaha Public Schools board member Shavonna Holman testified that training should be left up to individual school districts and said the state’s largest school district already offers it. She said local districts would need more money for mandatory training than the state would provide.

Several critics of LB 811 noted that it requires parents to be notified when a “physical intervention” is used but does not set a deadline for notification. The bill also allows the removal of students from a classroom setting without specifying how long a student can be kept out of class. The bill prohibits any infliction of bodily pain as a means of punishment.

One of several parents who shared concerns about student safety if the bill passed was Molly Jareske, whose son, Caiden, has autism. She testified against LB 811, sharing her family’s experience in the Bennington Public Schools, where she said Caiden was restrained eight times. 

She said her son “deserved the least restrictive environment.” Instead, she said, he came home at 7 years old, “defeated, scared and depleted.” She said she pressed to meet with the school 15 times, including seven times over the 11 days she said he was kept isolated from his classmates.

She filed a formal complaint with the Nebraska Department of Education against the district in November, as the Omaha World-Herald reported. The state sided with her, saying that her son was not given the behavioral help he needed and that he should not have been isolated so long. 

She eventually decided to home school him. 

“My son now struggles with trusting adults,” Jareske said. “This is happening to students daily. It’s a barbaric practice that needs to come to an end. … It is not OK.”

Kyle McGowan, testifying for both the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska Association of School Boards, said they opposed LB 811 because more physical interventions will not make schools safer.

“I can tell you when you take that step, kids are not melting in your arms,” he said. “You have just created a situation that could escalate the wrong way very quickly.”

If the Legislature wants to improve student behaviors, McGowan said, what schools need is smaller class sizes, better training, more teachers and paraeducators and more mental health resources. He said the organizations he represents would be open to the teacher and staff training piece of LB 811.

But allowing more interventions, he said, “is taking schools the wrong direction.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.