Discipline: A ‘Significant Concern’

Results of Survey on Discipline Shared with Education Committee

When Jay Sears told the Legislature's Education Committee that LB595 addressed "an area of significant concern" for Nebraska teachers, it might have been an understatement.

His story of an NSEA member's encounter with a violent student gave senators a brief but vivid sense of the urgency behind the phenomenal response to an NSEA poll.

Sears said the teacher's story was just one of many shared by NSEA members in response to the early February poll.

"I was assaulted by a student during my first year in my district," wrote the teacher. "I was taken from my classroom to the emergency room. I missed nearly a week of work. It never occurred to me that the student would be placed in my room again. (But)...upon my return, the student was to return to my room."

Those words, said Sears, came from a elementary school teacher who closed her remarks by saying "I've struggled with the physical damage to my body ever since."

The poll response was staggering. More than 7,200 educators answered and more than 3,000 responses came in the first three hours of the poll's delivery via email. More than 2,000 educators took time to add comments at the end of the poll.

"LB595 clearly hit a nerve with our members. The problem is real. Finding appropriate solutions is critical," Sears told senators.

NSEA President Nancy Fulton affirmed Sears' remarks.

"There are things that need to happen for classrooms to be safe learning environments."

The key question is this: What must we do to make our classrooms safe places to learn?

A Step Further

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene believes his LB595 offers a solution. Much of LB595 mirrors existing state law by authorizing teachers and administrators to use necessary force or restraint – short of corporal punishment – to assure physically violent students do not harm themselves or others.

Current statutes provide that teachers "may take actions regarding student behavior that are necessary to prevent interference with the educational process." A 1999 case involving former Bridgeport teacher and NSEA member Bob Daily allows educators to use physical contact short of corporal punishment – defined as infliction of bodily pain as a penalty for disapproved behavior – to control the school environment.

The language proposed in LB595 goes a step further, however, and would require a teacher's consent for a student to be allowed to return to the classroom. While 80 percent of NSEA members surveyed approve that idea, 70 percent of respondents also said their principal or administrator is supportive of teachers' decisions on discipline.

NSEA members did indicate, by an overwhelming margin, that discipline problems in school have increased in recent years. They also said, again by overwhelming numbers, that unruly students are the biggest classroom problem they face (see charts, above).

Comprehensive Approach

Many respondents expressed concern that students who are removed from the regular classroom continue to be educated. "All students deserve to learn," said one teacher.

"Our members do not want any child to miss the opportunity to learn, even those who are disruptive and need to be removed from the classroom," said Sears.

Kids are coming to school with mental and physical trauma.

"The solution isn't to throw them out. It's how to get them the help they need and to deal with their issues so they can get back into the classroom," said Sears.

Dealing with unruly and violent students requires a comprehensive approach. Extensive training in de-escalation and student restraint is important for educators. Smaller class sizes and the addition of counselors and mental health professionals is also essential.

Sufficient alternative placement options are needed. More emphasis on de-escalation and discipline in colleges of education would aid every educators, said respondents.

In fact, many teachers expressed a desire for additional training on how to deal with disruptive, threatening and potentially violent students. Poll respondents also emphasized the need for additional counselors, mental health and behavioral resources for students, resource rooms, itinerant assistants and more.

Interim Study Proposed

Sears told the Education Committee that NSEA hopes to work with the Legislature and other interested parties on an interim study on LB595 so comprehensive legislation can be drafted for the 2018 Legislature. Teachers are anxious to discuss classroom discipline issues. In fact, nearly 600 of the poll respondents said "yes" when asked whether they would be willing to be part of a discussion on discipline issues and solutions.

LB595 remains in committee.

Here is a look at the status of other education-related bills in the Legislature.

Master Teacher Program

While NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell testified in favor of a new source of funding for the state's Master Teacher Program, Organizational Specialist Jay Sears urged senators to kill LB214, which would permanently terminate the program.

"One of the reasons there was an appropriation for the Master Teacher Program for 2015-16 and 2016-17 was the fact that the Legislature had earlier pulled $30 million out of the state aid formula that went to state aid for school districts with master's degreed teachers," said Sears.

"Though the loss of $30 million in state aid to schools was significant, NSEA was encouraged that the Legislature was willing to appropriate some of those funds to rekindle the Master Teacher Program," he said.

He also pointed out that a teacher with such certification who moves to Nebraska "has absolutely no barriers to obtaining a certificate to teach in Nebraska."

Sears called it "shortsighted and unwise to terminate this program."

Change to Rule of 85

Sen. Mark Kolterman's LB415 would change the Rule of 85 to a Rule of 90 for any teacher hired after July 1 of this year. Kolterman says a study that indicated plan members are living longer than expected is having a negative effect on the plan's health.

NSEA believes that while projections show additional contributions to the plan may be needed in coming years, this action would be premature.

The Legislature is required to conduct an actuarial cost study to determine the impact such a change would have on the plan. Once the study is complete later this year, an informed decision can be made.

Early Retirements Threatened

Albion Sen. Tom Briese introduced LB457, which would no longer allow voluntary termination (early retirement) settlements to be housed outside a school district levy limit, beginning in 2018-19.

NSEA opposes LB457, and backed that opposition with facts showing that such settlements save school districts money. Typically, school boards offer early retirement packages to teachers close to retirement age, and with higher salaries, to entice staff to retire early.

The difference in salaries of new staff to replace the salary of retiring staff saves over the long term. In 2015-16, 40 districts requested state board approval for voluntary termination agreements at a total of $22.5 million. Thirty-five of those districts estimated a 5-year savings of $26.5 million.

Community College Probation

LB124 would extend probationary status for newly hired community college instructors from two years to three years.

NSEA testified in opposition. While K-12 teachers in Nebraska have a three-year probationary period, community college statutes do not provide the evaluation, notice, hearing and due process requirements available to K-12 teachers.

Threats to Certification

Still awaiting public hearings are two bills that would weaken teacher certification in Nebraska.

LB568, offered by Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, would allow five-year teaching certificates to be issued to persons 21 years of age, with a high school diploma, and 24 hours of in-service training.

LB650 allows issuance of an adjunct teaching certificate to any candidate "who has expertise in the subject area."

NSEA opposes both bills.

Grading of Schools

Offered by Omaha-area Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, LB662 would assign letter grades to school buildings, with the grades ranging from A to F, measuring school performance.

NSEA believes the existing AQuESTT school evaluation program is working, and opposes LB662.

Payroll Deduction Threat

Sen. Tom Brewer, Gordon, offered LB503, which prohibits public employers from allowing union members to have association dues deducted from paychecks. NSEA opposes the bill.

Tax Proposals a Threat to Property Tax Relief

One of two of the governor's tax proposals would further strain the state's ability to provide property tax relief through state aid to education. The other would hamper a school district's ability to use property taxes derived from agricultural land. NSEA testified in opposition to LB337 and LB338.

Despite consistent and widespread calls for property tax relief, LB337 cuts the top income tax rate from 6.84 percent to 5.99 percent, depending on forecasted growth. If growth for the upcoming year is greater than 3.5 percent, a reduction in the top rate is "triggered."

"Triggers typically are not responsible tax policy," said NSEA Director of Government Relations Jason Hayes. "Triggers put tax policy on autopilot and prevent lawmakers from being able to respond to downturns in the economy, natural disasters and other needs."

If the proposal had been adopted in 2001, income tax cuts would have been triggered in 2008, 2012 and 2016. State aid to education was underfunded in both 2008 and 2012, and was held at a zero-growth level in 2016.

LB338 limits agricultural land valuation growth. A 3.5 percent growth cap in aggregate property valuation would be applied only to agricultural property types. The resulting property tax shift, assuming the local levy rates could change, would amount to a 3.8 percent property tax reduction for farmers and ranchers, but a 2.1 percent increase for homeowners and businesses.

The bottom line: if LB337 and LB338 had been in place years ago, the Legislature now would be trying to resolve a much larger budget deficit than the current $800 million gap. Instead of tax cuts, additional revenue should be sought through eliminating current exemptions or by finding new sources of revenue to cover this budget gap.