A Nebraska legislative bill that would allow school personnel to use physical intervention with students could open school districts to possible litigation, Fort Calhoun Community Schools (FCCS) Supt. Don Johnson said.
"One of the reasons we don't allow teachers to do that now is because some folks abused and went above and beyond what would be considered appropriate," he said.
LB 147 is expected to be debated in the Legislature on Monday. Under the bill, school personnel would be allowed to use physical intervention with a student to protect that student or others from physical injury. School personnel could also use physical intervention to secure property a student could use to cause injury.
The bill would protect school personnel from legal liability if the physical intervention used was "reasonable." School personnel could physically restrain a student except for actions used to inflict pain as a penalty for disapproved behavior.
The Nebraska State Education Association is in support of the bill it sees as increasing safety for teachers and students. In Washington County, several school administrators from FCCS, Blair Community Schools (BCS) and Arlington Public Schools (APS) discussed the need for the bill, its gray areas when it comes to defining necessary restraint, its impact on teachers and students and whether focusing on other techniques would better avoid physical altercations.
"I struggle with that because I don't see the need for this type of bill, and yet I understand what's going on at bigger districts where they have more issues, more kids," Fort Calhoun High School Principal Jerry Green said. "I don't see it as a good fit for a school like ours where we don't have those issues on a day-to-day basis."
Green also questioned what the details would be when enacting the bill, such as who is to say when physical restraint is ultimately needed.
"What's it really look like at the end of the day, and who's going to interpret that," he said.
Blair High School Principal Tom Anderson also said defining what's necessary in physical restraint could be an issue.
"On the surface, this bill sounds like a great idea," he said. "The issue comes when everyone has a different definition of 'necessary physical contact.'"
Anderson said BHS works to provide a safe environment for students and staff, and the school is proactive in building relationships with students and working on ways to de-escalate situations efficiently.
"There are students on (Individualized Education Plans) that might need regulation, and we have had altercations in the past, but once again, having the relationships and being proactive can de-escalate these situations better than relying on physical restraint," Anderson said, adding that as a Crisis Prevention Institute trainer, seven out of eight chapters in training are about de-escalation.
"The eighth chapter is about restraint as a last resort," he said. "All of our special education and administrative staff are trained in de-escalation techniques."
Arlington High School Principal Aaron Pfingsten said he believes Nebraska already has laws in place that provide teachers and administrators discretion when it comes to addressing student discipline.
APS Supt. Dawn Lewis said the district is always promoting a positive learning environment for all students and teachers.
"While LB 147 seems well intended, it may be in conflict with supporting a positive climate," she said.
Lewis also referenced statements from officials from the Arc of Nebraska, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which said that in 80 percent of cases restraint is used on a child, it is done so on someone with a disability.
Johnson also sees concern for special education students when it comes to LB 147.
"That will be the first lawsuit you get, that someone will mishandle a special education student," Johnson said. "That'll get nationwide press."
The bill adding pressure on teachers who already have a lot of their plate in addition to teaching is also a concern, Johnson said, and the cost to properly train everyone in a school could be significant. He added that the bill seems more like punishment rather than discipline.
"Education is about discipline, education isn't about punishment," Johnson said. "Discipline is teaching a person how to act and how to behave in the world that they live in. Punishment, that's just flat out you screwed up, now we're going to do this to you. That's not what we're here for, we're here to teach."
What's most important, he said, is taking care of students.
"We got to take care of the issues that cause them to act out," he said. "If you can capture that, if you can take our kindergartners coming in because they struggle with mental illness or their parents do, or they struggle with abuse or that type of thing, if you can give them help to get through that, then you open their world up to education."