We Must Start with Safety

by NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell

Several years ago, I arrived home to find my son on his back in our front yard, pinned to the ground by my husband.  Darek was yelling, and my husband was trying to calm him down while keeping both of them safe.

What had happened? Bill had been kneeling in the front yard working on the path lights, when Darek came running out of the house and started beating on Bill. 

There was no antecedent behavior, no triggers we could find – and trust me, we broke the incident down minute-by-minute to try to find out the ‘why.’ Darek just blew…and Daddy was the target of his anger.

‘I Nearly Blacked Out’

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior also happens frequently in our schools. Kids, sometimes with no warning, become violent and began to hurt their peers, adults or themselves. 

It happened to me when I was teaching 6th grade. Words were exchanged by two boys in the cafeteria.  I put my arm around the shoulders of one, and we calmly began walking away.  The other young man leaped on top of a table and launched himself towards us, clocking me in the jaw and knocking me on the ground.  

Last year, LB147 advanced to the floor of the Nebraska legislature, supported by NSEA. The provisions of LB147 would create safer classrooms across the state.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which we all studied in education courses, notes that safety is a most basic need to be met for students to learn and grow. Classrooms must also be safe places for educators to work.

 This fall, an NSEA member was choked, almost to the point of unconsciousness, by her student (see photo). She wrote “one student has strangled me twice and has attempted to do so a third time. During the second incident, I was pinned to the floor as he sat on my chest. I nearly blacked out from lack of oxygen. It took me weeks of leave to recover from injuries I received from these incidents. This student remains in my classroom and may remain there for the rest of the school year, even though he attempts to strangle me at every opportunity.”

LB147 Does Not Allow Abuse

In recent weeks, we received more than 150 responses from teachers and administrators sharing stories of feeling unsafe or being attacked in their own classroom. 

 “The student became angry when he was told that he could not do something. The student began to knock items off the teacher’s desk, tables, etc. along with tearing down bulletin boards, and scratching the teacher. The student was brought to me, the principal, where the behavior continued with the student destroying bulletin boards and hallway displays and attempting to leave the building. Along with attempting to hit, kick and spit on me.  Since I/we were unable to calm the student down, the foster parent was contacted to assist us.”

There was also this response to our request for details:

“Student with anger issues knocked over desks and/or lunged at and hit students in the classroom 2-3 times per week. We created a classroom code word so I could quickly evacuate the classroom if an incident occurred.”

Much has been said about LB147 that is untrue. It does not allow teachers to abuse students with impunity. It has no language allowing for the seclusion of students. It does not allow a teacher to send their whole class to the office on a daily basis for not having a pencil. I encourage everyone to read the bill, with changes, once the legislature convenes in January. 

Two Components

LB147 has two major components: First, it moves language from the 1999 case Daily v. Board of Education from case law into state statute, clarifying that school personnel have the right to preserve order in the schools, or protect persons and property from harm, using reasonable physical contact with a student. Further, it requires school districts to have a publicly available policy on physical contact and to notify parents within 24 hours if this provision must be utilized.

The second main component says if a student’s behavior is so unruly, disruptive, or abusive that it seriously interferes with the learning environment and the opportunity for other students to learn, the teacher can have the student removed. The goal of the administrator or their designee shall be to return the student to class as soon as possible, after appropriate instructional or behavioral interventions are in place to help the student succeed. The provision also notes the importance of following a student’s IEP throughout the process. 

LB147 is one piece of the systemic change that needs to take place as we address student behavior. That is why NSEA and our partner, the National Education Association, will invest more than $100,000 in 2020 to help Nebraska teachers understand more about trauma -informed teaching and to engage stakeholders across the state in building stronger and better learning models for Nebraska students.

But, as Maslow taught us, we must start with the basics, we must start at the foundation. That means safe classrooms for students and educators.