From Collaboration Comes LB 322: NCSA, education community back “game-changing” safety bill

By Tyler Dahlgren
NCSA Communications Specialist

One by one they approached the podium, leaders in their respective corners of the education community bound by their testimony in support of a bill that could change the landscape of student safety and security in all of Nebraska’s schools.

Testimony for LB 322 came from all sides. From NDE State School Security Director Dr. Jolene Palmer and NCSA Executive Director Dr. Mike Dulaney, the drivers behind the bill. From the Nebraska Catholic Conference’s Jeremy Ekeler, UNL’s Dr. Mario Scalora and Boys Town’s Ginny Gohr.

From Millard Public School’s Bill Jelkin, Omaha Police Department Captain Steve Cerveny and Ralston Superintendent Dr. Mark Adler, who, along with his wife Joni initiated the Be Kind campaign following the suicide of their 15-year-old son, Reid, in early 2016 after a period of bullying that went on far too long.

It was quite fitting, the overwhelming backing from the education community of a bill that was itself born from the willingness of leaders to come together in collaboration for the safety of students in all corners of the state.

Introduced on behalf of NCSA by Senator Matt Williams and brought to public hearing on Feb. 9, LB 322 calls for the statewide adoption of the School Safety and Security Reporting System Act. Given that each district across the state is mandated to have a threat assessment team, the bill enacts a logical and efficient next step in the safety process while providing a crucial link between those teams and students with information regarding potential crises, threats, and/or danger.

“There’s three things that I want you to think about as we move forward with this,” Senator Williams said in his opening statement. “First, the demonstrated need that we all recognize. The safety of the kids in our schools is one of the reasons our public and private school systems are as successful as they are. Secondly, we have in front of us a proven solution that has become the national model. The last is cost. I don’t think we can afford not to do this.”

The proven solution exists in the form of a report line. Nebraska conveniently is already home to one of the nation’s finest in the Boys Town Hotline, which has housed Safe2Help, a pilot program proven effective in Douglas County, for the last couple of years. When Palmer was making her initial push for a statewide report line after the legislature mandated each district in the state to have a security assessment completed on them in 2014, the suggestion to team with Boys Town was made not once, but twice. First by Susan Payne, founder of Safe2Tell Colorado, whose model inspired the formation of Nebraska’s, and then by Governor Pete Ricketts after states were encouraged to assemble task forces for school safety in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla. shooting that left 17 dead in 2018. Modeling the program after Colorado’s was a no-brainer for Palmer, who tweaked the name slightly because of the willingness from students to “help” a peer rather than to “tell” on a peer.

“While attending a school report line summit, I learned there were two trains of thought with school safety report lines,” Palmer said. “There was everybody that went with the Safe2Tell Colorado model, and there were the people who wished they had gone with the Safe2Tell Colorado model.”

Palmer credits Boys Town for taking the idea and running with it, partnering with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and OPD and writing the grant that funded the pilot study. Boys Town credits the OPD Foundation for their important role in supporting the program. That was three years ago. Now, the model is tried and true, built perfectly for statewide expansion.

Report line operators field calls for an array of issues like suicide, drug use and sales, and bullying. Depression among students has been on a noticeable uptick since the pandemic broke last year.

“Research shows that in over eighty-percent of the time there’s been mass targeted violence, information had been leaked to someone,” Palmer said. “We call that leakage, and that leakage is what we’re hoping students, staff and parents will call and report.”

The model is at once proactive and preventative.

“The report line is all about targeted school violence,” said Palmer. “There could be a time when somebody has information about a mass shooting or some kind of situation down the road where they could call the report line and say ‘I know this is going to happen.’”

Callers remain one-hundred percent anonymous. It’s that anonymity that might persuade a student with information to call Safe2Help, as opposed to 911. Coincidentally, Safe2Help Nebraska serves as a cog in the school-to-prison pipeline.

“There’s a comfortability young people feel with this model,” said Gohr, Director of the Boys Town National Hotline. “With all kinds of threats, not just school violence or suicide, the whole premise of our system is being more anonymous and sharing information that the kids know somebody needs to have knowledge about. That’s the important thing.”

One efficient report line connected to threat assessment teams at every school district in the state.

“It’s like a case management tool in that it follows the process all the way through in an automated way,” Gohr, whose staff receives thorough training in threat de-escalation, explained. “Safe2Help brings people together and bolsters communication.”

The pilot program has seen positive outcomes in each of the 470 calls that have come through the report line so far. Out of those calls, 87 were made by students concerned that a peer was having suicidal ideations. Statewide expansion would boost that number considerably, and that’s the goal. Those interventions are invaluable.

“There have been some unintentional outcomes that have been very positive, mainly the number of cases where interventions have been made when there’s been suicide ideation,” said Palmer. “The number of students who have been bullied to the point of turning to taking their own lives, where other students have picked up on that and called and shared that information. Those are lives saved.”

The more calls, the better.

“We want more calls and we want more tips” said Margaret Vacek, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at Boys Town. “The more tips we receive, the more opportunity we have to make a difference.”

Ekeler, Associate Director of Education Policy for the NE Catholic Conference, testified that successful passage of LB 322 and the statewide utilization of a singular report line would take some stress off the shoulders of overworked administrators.

“I worked through the ESSA process with public schools as a non-public referee representative of the state,” Ekeler told the Education Committee. “When you get LEAs in public schools working together with non-public schools, really special stuff happens. When you have money coming from DC that you can get all the way to the student, that’s amazing. We need something similar here for school safety, for sure. We can work together for this.”

The fiscal note for LB 322 is close to $900,000, approximately $160,000 of which would go towards the software. There are 360,000 K-12 students in Nebraska, Senator Williams pointed out, equating to only $2.50 per student.

“I would challenge all of us to think about it that way,” Williams urged. “The balance of the fiscal note is people, and that’s why this program has proven itself successful. These people are highly-trained professionals. They operate twenty-four seven.”

With a bill she worked so hard on now on the floor, Palmer finds it impossible to express the importance of the collaboration that helped it get there.

“I can’t think of a better and more effective working relationship than what NDE School Safety and NCSA have,” Palmer said. “NCSA came along and gave us a huge boost with our first safety summit, and I can’t put a price tag on that relationship, just like I can’t put a price tag on Safe2Help. Both of those ventures have a large payout in terms of school safety, and that’s what is key and vital.”

 
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