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Editorial: OPS payout shows Legislature's need to act on school sexual abuse

Editorial: OPS payout shows Legislature's need to act on school sexual abuse

Only $5 for 5 months

Seventeen days is all the Nebraska Legislature will have when it reconvenes on Monday. Lawmakers will have big issues on their plate, including property tax relief, school aid and business incentives. But state senators must also leave time to address another key issue: protecting Nebraska students from sexual abuse.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee has drawn up legislation to address several key aspects of the issue, and the proposals deserve passage. Just this week, the Omaha Public Schools board approved a settlement paying $935,000 to a student and her mother after the student was sexually assaulted by a first-grade teacher at Fontenelle Elementary School. The teacher, Gregory Sedlacek, is serving 40 to 65 years in prison for molesting six students, age 6 and 7, at the school, a hideous betrayal of trust by an adult toward vulnerable children.

In all, the OPS board this year has approved more than $1.5 million in settlements stemming from Sedlacek’s assaults. OPS covers 25% of the cost, with an insurance carrier covering the rest.

These are enormous costs for OPS. Still, the worst cost is the harm done to these children by their assailant. The Legislature, the Nebraska Department of Education and local school districts all have an obligation to do all they can to strengthen protections for the state’s school children.

An investigation last year by The World-Herald showed the sobering scale of sexual assault or inappropriate contacts between teachers and students across the state. Since the beginning of 2014, at least 56 certified educators in the state were caught having inappropriate communication or sexual contact with students.

The World-Herald found that the victimization included at least 74 students or recent high school graduates. In 41 cases, educators had sex or sexual contact with students.

If the elementary-age children abused by Sedlacek were excluded, the average age for girls assaulted was 15.4. For male victims, the average age was 16.2 years.

It’s sobering that current Nebraska law does not make it illegal for a teacher or coach to have sex with a student who is at least 16, although such action can result in revocation of the person’s teaching certificate. At least 22 states, including Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado, have laws against such acts, with variations in the penalties and age range covered.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee has developed a bill that would outlaw such an act, by creating the offense of sexual assault of a student.

Lawmakers have given first-round approval to legislation by State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to require all Nebraska school districts to create a local policy prohibiting sexual contract between educators and students. Such a strong focus by all districts is needed.

Nebraska schools have a crucial obligation to keep students safe. The Legislature can help that vital cause greatly by approving these worthwhile proposals.

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Under a bill in the Legislature, by June 30, 2021, the school board of each school district and the governing authority of each private, denominational or parochial school would have to adopt a policy regarding appropriate relationships between a student and a school employee or a student teacher or intern. The policy would have to prohibit any school employee, student teacher or intern from engaging in grooming.

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