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Bill that would allow teachers to use force to control violent students draws concerns

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LINCOLN — A bill that would allow teachers to use physical force to control violent students drew support Tuesday from the Nebraska State Education Association.

“Our members have told us in no uncertain terms that they need strong support and additional resources to maintain control of their classrooms,” said Jay Sears, speaking for the teachers’ union.

Legislative Bill 595 had no other friends among the dozen or so people who spoke at a public hearing before the Education Committee.

Opponents said the bill could open the door for abuse, lead to injuries, even death, and be used disproportionately against students with disabilities and minority students.

The proposal is “bad for teachers, bad for schools and bad for kids,” said Karen Haase, an attorney who specializes in school law.

But State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, committee chairman and introducer of LB 595, said the bill is intended to make it possible for teachers to do their jobs.

He said he has heard from several teachers, including some in his own family, about increasing numbers of violent, unruly students.

“Discipline in the classroom is of utmost importance in order to allow students to focus and learn and teachers to effectively communicate to the entire class,” he said.

Groene said LB 595 would allow teachers or administrators to control their classrooms without fear of legal action or administrative discipline, as long as their actions are reasonable.

The bill would permit the use of physical force or physical restraint to subdue violent students and physical restraint on students who are damaging school property.

Neither action would be considered corporal punishment under the bill. Current state law prohibits corporal punishment in Nebraska schools.

LB 595 also would let teachers remove students from their classroom for being repeatedly or seriously unruly, disruptive or abusive and give teachers the final word about whether those students could return.

On Tuesday, Groene offered an amendment saying that students could return to a teacher’s classroom if required under federal laws concerning special education students.

Classroom violence and student discipline are major concerns for Nebraska teachers, Sears said, pointing to the more than 7,000 responses to an NSEA survey on the issue.

He said 80 percent of those responding said violence has increased in their schools and 60 percent listed unruly, disruptive students as their biggest problem.

In addition, the survey found that a majority of teachers don’t realize state law already allows some physical contact with students to preserve order in the classroom.

But Sears reported that many teachers said they don’t want to be involved in physical altercations with students because “they know violence begets violence.” They want to learn more about how to de-escalate situations and how to get help for students.

He said there may be better solutions and urged the committee to explore the issue more in an interim study.

Wood River resident Lynn Redding, who opposed the bill, also urged more time to study the situation.

As a person with a disability who has been subjected to restraints, she said she fears that LB 595 would represent a step backward for Nebraska.

She said the bill does not require that teachers be trained on restraint techniques or provide for parent involvement.

“There is a line that needs to be drawn to protect a child, even one that is disruptive,” Redding said.

Jane Byers, speaking for the Nebraska Association of Special Education Supervisors, said LB 595 brought attention to the growing mental health needs of Nebraska students.

She said many disruptive children have special education needs. She and others pointed to efforts to expand resources for treating those children as a better option.

Spike Eickholt, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Nebraska, called the bill “breathtakingly broad” in what it would allow school employees to do without legal repercussions and in its lack of definitions for key terms.

“It would give license for some school employees to physically attack students for a wide range of student behavior,” he said.

martha.stoddard@owh.com, 402-473-9583

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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