Proposal would fund school safety task force recommendations

Two new grant programs would fund safety-related upgrades for Nebraska school buildings and additional mental health services for students under a bill heard March 13 by the Education Committee.

Sen. Lynne Walz
Sen. Lynne Walz

Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz, sponsor of LB516, said the proposal includes recommendations from a task force formed after the school shooting last year in Uvalde, Texas.

The bill would require the commissioner of education to create and administer a grant program schools could use to pay for security-related infrastructure, including surveillance systems, door-locking systems and double-entry doors.

Under a separate program administered by the state Department of Education, a public health department or educational service unit could apply for a grant to hire a mental health practitioner or school psychologist to provide mental and behavioral health support to students.

LB516 states legislative intent to appropriate $15 million in general funds to the infrastructure grant program and $5 million to the mental and behavioral health measure.

The bill also states legislative intent to hire regional school safety specialists to increase the availability of training, provide technical support and serve as a central point of contact for school districts.

Walz said the specialists could train school employees in threat assessment, review schools’ emergency response plans and identify school security infrastructure priorities.

A pending amendment would allow private schools to partner with the regional specialists and apply for grants, she said.

Finally, LB516 states legislative intent to use state general funds for the Safe2HelpNE report line beginning in fiscal year 2024-25. Walz said the program — a statewide, anonymous reporting system to support school threat assessment teams with the goal of reducing violent incidents — currently relies on federal funds that will run out by the end of FY2023-24.

The state Department of Education’s fiscal note for LB516 states that the annual cost for Safe2HelpNE is $870,000.

Diana Schmidt of Boys Town, which administers the report line in cooperation with the department, testified in support of the bill. Since its inception, she said, Safe2HelpNE has received more than 2,000 tip reports that have helped increase school safety, decrease bullying and combat drugs in schools.

Jason Wiese testified in support of LB516 on behalf of the Nebraska State Education Association. He said the proposed regional specialists could ensure that security measures are consistent at school districts across the state while providing technical support that meets each district’s unique needs.

Also in support was Erik Wilson, director of student services and safety at Norfolk Public Schools. He said school safety professionals recommend that all classroom doors can be locked from the inside and that exterior school doors include hardware that allows for a full lockdown.

Many Nebraska school buildings lack those features because the state has not made funding them a priority, Wilson said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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