Kids Like Felix Deserve a Chance

by NSEA President Jenni Benson

The February tragedy in Florida – the senseless shooting of 14 teenagers and three high school educators – stirred deep emotions in all of us. As we tried to fathom what happened, many of us thought of our students who struggle with mental health and other issues.

Among my initial thoughts were those of a young man I taught, early in my career, in a self-contained classroom for students with behavior disorders.

Felix struggled with mental health needs. One day he arrived at my classroom with several personal items, including gold necklaces, he had stolen from his uncle. The family’s pastor soon called the school to ask whether I could bring Felix home with his misappropriated goods.

My paraprofessional, Sally, and I got in my minivan with Felix to take him home and return the items to his uncle. His family lived in a colonia quite a few miles from the school and community, out in the scrub, rock and mesquite of the south Texas desert.

Once we arrived, I climbed out of the van and walked up to the house. Sally, who was also my sometimes interpreter, remained in the van. The uncle met me at the door with a shotgun, which I presumed was loaded. After a few tense moments, I used what little Spanish I knew at the time to settle him down and convince him to agree to put his gun away.

While that was perhaps my most harrowing and closest experience with a weapon during my teaching career, I wish I could say that it was my only such encounter. It was not.

Mind-Boggling

My Felix experience was at Edinburg, TX, a school district of nearly 50,000 students about 20 miles from the border with Mexico. It’s a huge district, spreading across nearly 1,000 square miles.

Nearly 80 percent of students qualify for free lunch.

Here is what boggles my mind: The school district’s budget today includes 78 sworn police officers, another 30 security officers, three K-9 officers, and a SWAT team equipped with military surplus gear. That’s a far different budget line for school security than the district I left more than 25 years ago.

Clearly, the education world is changing quickly, and in ways we may not always like. As we grapple with school safety, the need for more mental health services for our students, and the gun control debate, we can all recount stories of students like Felix. We all have personal views and influences on these issues. But each of us, as teachers, want one thing: we want our schools to be havens of safety.

Support for LB998

Your NSEA is dedicated to working for the safety and well-being of our members and students. We are in ongoing meetings with a coalition of education-oriented groups talking about school safety and mental health services.

We support eight bills in the legislature this session that are focused on mental health and support services for our students. One, LB998, would place a social worker in every Educational Service Unit in the state. It has become the priority bill of Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz.

Our standing Resolutions, reviewed and updated each year at the NSEA Delegate Assembly, clearly express our concern for schools as a safe place. Those resolutions address school environments, bullying and mental health care for students. Resolution C-9 states, in part, that the “NSEA believes that all students and education employees must be allowed to learn and work in an environment free of unauthorized guns and other deadly weapons.”

Survey and Action

Educators nationwide have similar sentiments. Results from a new survey by the NEA found:

  • 99 percent of NEA members across the country favor universal background checks;
  • 91 percent of teachers support taking measures to prevent the mentally ill from accessing guns; and
  • 90 percent favor preventing those with a history of domestic violence from gaining access to guns.

Finally, the NSEA Board of Directors will bring a New Business Item to Delegate Assembly asking for formation of a committee to look more closely at school safety and all the services that school safety might encompass. If the committee’s formation is approved, the committee will make recommendations for action at Delegate Assembly 2019.

Delegate Assembly breakouts this year will include professional development on school safety, trauma-informed classrooms and a variety of other subjects on issues we are facing across Nebraska. You will find a schedule of those breakouts – and details on how to attend here!

Although sometimes troubled, Felix could be a good kid. His family was dirt poor, and somewhere I still have a rock he gave me as a gift, proof of his kindness, proof that even troubled kids can be reached.