Nebraska lawmakers advance school safety package to full Legislature
By Zach Wendling (Nebraska Examiner),2023-03-30
LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — A Nebraska legislative committee advanced a package Wednesday designed to improve school safety, coming just days after another school shooting, this time in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Education Committee voted 7-0 to send Legislative Bill 516 , proposed by State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, to the full Legislature. State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha was not present for the vote.
LB 516 includes four legislative recommendations from Nebraska’s School Safety Task Force, which formed shortly after last year’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas . Walz, who was chair of the Education Committee at the time, and then-Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt led the group.
The task force’s legislative recommendations are:
- Hiring regional specialists across four regions of the state (western, central, northeastern and southeastern) to provide tailored support and increased safety training to K-12 schools.
- Appropriating general funds (about $870,000 annually) to continue the Safe2HelpNE anonymous reporting hotline.
- Creating a $15 million grant program related to security infrastructure, such as surveillance equipment, door-locking systems or double-entry doors.
- Establishing a $5 million grant program so local health departments or educational service units could hire mental health practitioners or school psychologists.
Walz introduced an amendment to clarify that regional specialists and grants would be available to approved or accredited public and nonpublic schools.
“I think that it will show that Nebraska is putting its best foot forward when it comes to protecting kids and trying to secure our schools,” Walz said.
‘Heart goes out’ to Nashville
State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, current chair of the Education Committee, said schools across the state have done as best they can for years regarding school safety.
Walz’s bill, he said, will provide additional state support to go further.
“My heart goes out to the families that have been affected nationwide,” Murman said, noting Monday’s shooting at a private elementary school in Nashville .
That incident marked the 89th shooting on K-12 school grounds this year, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database . That’s more shootings than days in the year so far.
The United States recorded 303 shootings at K-12 schools in 2022, the most in any one year since data collection began in 1970.
‘No. 1 priority’
Walz prioritized LB 516, which in a year not affected by endless filibusters would bring a greater chance of being scheduled for debate.
Both Walz and Murman said filibusters could be a challenge in getting LB 516 to floor debate.
However, Murman said school safety is “right up there” with tax relief packages, the budget and abortion in terms of being discussed this session. Walz said it has “just as much weight.”
“It’s very important, of course, to protect our young children as best we can,” Murman said.
Walz said it’s critical that State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, the speaker of the Legislature, who sets the daily agenda, brings LB 516 to the floor.
The bill should be well received on the floor of the Legislature, considering it has already garnered seven “key” votes from state senators to advance the bill, she said.
“This is about keeping our communities safe,” Walz said. “To me, that is the No. 1 priority above everything else.”
Mental health support
Another member of the Education Committee, State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, said there is consensus that a problem exists with school safety.
While people disagree on the best solution, Conrad said providing support and addressing mental health can be among the greatest approaches.
Conrad applauded Walz and the task force for investments in mental health, which Conrad said “has to be a big part of the puzzle.”
In 2021, the Legislature approved statewide funding for Safe2HelpNE, following a pilot program in Douglas County. However, federal funds run out in 2024.
The committee voted 7-0 to provide funding for the program “in perpetuity,” on an annual basis, rather than for just one year.
The tip line has helped more than 2,000 students since it’s been implemented, Walz said, adding that mental health aspects of the bill will be critical for violence prevention.
‘Focus on being kids’
Conrad said that while carpooling some of her daughter’s friends after a movie last week, the children discussed “little bits and pieces of information” regarding school shootings.
“The chatter happened in a way that almost seemed nonchalant, that it was just part and parcel with their daily mindset,” Conrad said. “That was so heart-wrenching and so striking to me and a clarion call and good reminder that we as adults shouldn’t let that be the norm.”
Conrad said this furthers the need for lawmakers to “get our act together” and move ahead with solutions driven by evidence and common sense.
Doing so can keep kids safe, Conrad said, “so that they can focus on being kids and not have to be scared about school shootings.”
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