LINCOLN — The words “physical force” were gone from this year’s version of a bill protecting teachers who use physical restraint against violent and disruptive students. But the change did little to mollify opponents.
School administrators, disability rights advocates and advocates for children all lined up against Legislative Bill 147 at a hearing Monday before the Education Committee.
On the other side was the Nebraska State Education Association, which represents teachers, and State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who chairs the committee and introduced the measure.
He said the proposal, like a similar one two years ago, seeks to protect teachers so they can maintain order in their classrooms to promote education. He said teachers now fear the consequences of using physical means to deal with violent and unruly students.
“The teacher is the sergeant in that classroom and they are in charge on the battlefield, and we need to allow them to control their classroom,” Groene said. “Supporting this bill is supporting public education.”
NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell argued for the measure, saying that teachers need to know they are supported in addressing violent and disruptive students, while also working to meet the needs of students with a wide variety of disabilities and traumas.
“We’re trying to find a reasonable middle,” she said, so when students are “having behavior that’s really disruptive to the learning environment or dangerous, that we have the resources and the rights to protect that child from themselves and to protect other children.”
But representatives of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, the Nebraska Association of School Boards, the Nebraska Rural Community School Association and a secondary school principals organization spoke against the bill.
Brad Jacobsen, high school and middle school principal at Ashland-Greenwood, said the measure would drive a wedge between teachers and administrators by giving teachers the ability to have students removed from their classrooms.
Others argued that the measure would be used disproportionately against students with disabilities and minority students.
Edison Red Nest, a school board member from Alliance, raised concerns that restraints could be used disproportionately against Native American students just as Native American students are disproportionately represented in the district’s alternative high school.
Red Nest also related a personal experience of being restrained during his elementary school years for refusing to eat his spinach.
“The teachers held me down and force-fed me,” he said.
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Some opponents said the bill would encourage more use of restraints against students, despite studies showing that restraints can lead to physical and emotional harm. Michael Warner, a board member for Disability Rights Nebraska, raised concerns particularly about children who cannot speak.
“Students are in school to learn,” he said. “They should not be fearful of retaliation from a teacher because they got frustrated.”
LB 147 would allow teachers or administrators to use “necessary physical contact or physical restraint” against students who act violently against themselves or others or who damage school property. The bill defines restraint as holding a student’s hands, wrists or torso and specifically bars the use of mechanical restraints or tying up students.
The bill also would allow teachers to have students removed from their classrooms for repeatedly interfering with classroom learning or being seriously unruly, disruptive or abusive. A student may be allowed to return following a conference involving the teacher, parent or guardian, and principal.
Groene said he has prepared an amendment that makes clear that the removal provision does not apply if remaining in the classroom is part of a student’s special education plan.
Under LB 147, teachers who use physical means to deal with students or who bar students from their classes would be protected from lawsuits or administrative discipline if they had acted in a “reasonable manner.”
It also declares that physical restraint is not to be considered corporal punishment, which is prohibited by state law in Nebraska schools.
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