Administrative, educational changes for youth centers advance

A bill overhauling management and educational programing at youth rehabilitation and training centers in Nebraska advanced from general file March 10.

Sen. Sara Howard
Sen. Sara Howard

LB1188, introduced by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, would require the Office of Juvenile Services to create a superintendent of schools position to administer education for YRTCs by Aug. 1, 2020, and mandate that education for any juvenile committed to the OJS be provided by a school program meeting the requirements of an interim program school, an approved school or an accredited school.

The bill also would designate YRTCs as interim program schools.

Howard said she eventually would like the four schools serving YRTC youth to be operated by the Nebraska Department of Education. LB1188 is the first step in that transition, she said.

The current situation is a challenge, she said, because school administration is not an area of expertise for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

A Health and Human Services Committee amendment, adopted 32-5, would require a superintendent of institutional schools to administer the education programming at YRTCs and all DHHS-administered institutions where youth are housed.

The amendment also added the provisions of two other bills introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha:
• LB1147, which would require DHHS to administer daily maintenance, minor repairs, custodial duties and other operations at YRTCs while the state Department of Administrative Services would oversee major repairs, capital improvements, contract procurement for such improvements and other facility maintenance functions that are not the responsibility of DHHS; and
• LB1149, which would require the state Office of Juvenile Services to utilize evidence-based and validated tools, programs and services. It also would prohibit staff from limiting or prohibiting a juvenile from communicating with relatives as a punishment.

Howard said the provisions from LB1147 would clear up confusion about responsibilities between state agencies overseeing YRTCs, which compounded the crisis that led to the temporary closure of YRTC-Geneva after property was damaged by residents.

“For example, the committee heard that there was confusion about whether damage caused by the girls could be repaired, or even whether the staff of the YRTCs could turn the water off when the sprinkler heads were broken, without going through DAS,” she said.

Vargas said he introduced LB1149 after learning that residents sometimes were disciplined by not being allowed contact with their families.

“This is an unacceptable and harmful correctional approach,” Vargas said. “They need the support of a loving voice on the other end of the phone to do better.”

Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth introduced an amendment, adopted 32-9, to include some provisions of his LB1150. The proposal would allow only girls to be placed at the YRTC facility in Geneva and only boys to be placed at the facility in Kearney. It would not take effect until July 1, 2021.

“Housing girls in the same campus as boys has been a struggle for everyone involved,” Brandt said.

Sen. John Lowe of Kearney opposed Brandt’s amendment, saying the residential facilities in Geneva will not be ready by next summer.

“It cannot be done now, it probably can’t be done in a year,” Lowe said. “These facilities were made for less violent individuals.”

Following adoption of the Brandt amendment, senators advanced LB1188 to select file on a 32-4 vote.

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