A group of high school students who organized a local March for Our Lives rally in March to advocate for stricter gun laws in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, didn’t want to stop there.
So they encouraged Sen. Adam Morfeld to introduce an interim legislative study to examine school safety and Friday found themselves in front of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
“I’m here because of the disproportional way gun violence affects America,” said Jayden Speed, an eighth-grader at Conestoga Junior-Senior High School in Murray.
Isabel Bousson, a Lincoln East senior, said Nebraska should be on the forefront of gun safety legislation by passing safe storage laws and those that impose penalties for those who provide young people access to guns.
Lydia Rathe, a Lincoln High School senior, said schools need to offer more mental health services to students, including individual and group therapy, because many students can’t afford such services on their own.
“Having just a small group of people caring for you can make a huge difference,” she said.
And Bouthaina Ibrahim, a Northeast High School senior, said any reform "must be race-conscious."
Much of the rest of the hearing centered on the role of school resource officers in schools, the topic of an interim study resolution introduced by Lincoln Senator Patty Pansing Brooks.
Lisa Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth, a Massachusetts-based organization that promotes training public-safety officers to deal with young people, said the state should require training for school resource officers that focuses on how the adolescent brain works, educates them about students with disabilities and those who have suffered trauma.
The state also needs to have policies in place that set out the responsibilities of the officers and school administrators so school discipline matters are not thrust upon officers.
She noted testimony from Lincoln and Omaha school and police officials about the work they’re doing to reduce court referrals and create a more positive school culture, as well as the training school resource officers receive, but said not all districts do that.
Greg Gonzalez, an assistant police chief in Omaha, said a project to better train school resource officers and better define the roles of school administrators and police reduced felony citations in schools by 19 percent and misdemeanors by 76 percent.
Spike Eickholt with ACLU of Nebraska said his organization does not support a regular presence of law enforcement in schools. The disproportionate percentage of minority students who are disciplined or referred to court is well-documented, he said, and his organization is conducting a study of school resource officers in Nebraska.
The study isn’t finished, he said, but among the concerns ACLU officials have identified are a lack of policies to ensure students are made aware of their rights when they’re interviewed by police and policies to ensure parental notification of questioning by school resource officers.
Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said safety in schools is essential to learning, but the state hasn’t gotten it right yet.
“We have not yet struck the proper balance between caring for our students as young developing people and providing a safe environment,” she said. “Let me be very specific. My concern is that the pendulum has swung too far toward end-stage punitive measures.”
Actions that once resulted in trips to the principal’s office now too often result in suspension, expulsion or arrest, she said
And she commended the students who opened the hearing.
“I want to fully applaud the students who are here. Honestly, they are my only hope that we are going to get this right and (pass) serious gun reform,” she said.