#childsafety | Safety director: Nebraska has made progress fortifying schools, but there’s more to be done | Education

OMAHA — Nebraska has made significant progress hardening school buildings against attacks like the one in Uvalde, Texas.

And the state’s gotten better at identifying potentially dangerous kids ahead of time, officials say.

But as shock and sadness swept the nation over the loss of life at Robb Elementary School, Nebraskans are asking: What more can be done?

A state task force will try to answer that question.

Jolene Palmer, Nebraska school safety and security director, said last month that there’s more work to be done, but schools are “light years ahead” of where they were even four or five years ago.

“They are safer than they were,” she said. “And I’ll tell you, they still are the safest place for kids to be. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

School officials in Nebraska have been working for at least a decade on hardening their buildings.

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Many of those efforts were prompted by Omaha shootings in 2007 at Von Maur department store and 2011 at Millard South High School. The latter killed an assistant principal.

Many schools have installed buzz-in front doors with man-trap vestibules and security cameras both inside and out. They’ve improved exterior doors, adding key fob openers and alarm systems that trigger when a door’s opened. They’ve done away with the 1970s-era open floor plans, remodeling them into stand-alone classrooms with doors that lock from the inside.

Some schools are still working to accomplish the changes.

Voters in Ralston Public Schools last fall approved a bond issue that will pay for vestibule-style secure entrances at the district’s middle and elementary schools.

Grand Island Public Schools is spending more than $2.2 million of federal COVID-19 relief money to renovate and add secure entrances to several elementary and middle schools.

The entrances will be the vestibule type, which consists of a secure space with cameras and a locked door where a visitor has to request to enter the building through a video intercom system outside, said Mitchell Roush, spokesman for Grand Island.

Palmer said a large majority of the state’s schools have their perimeter doors locked all day, with a single school entrance. But she acknowledged that sometimes a teacher will prop open a door to run out to their car or a child will put a rock in it to hold it open for a friend.

In Texas, authorities initially said a teacher was seen on video propping open a rear exterior door to the school, which the teacher exited to retrieve food before lunch. Officials later confirmed that the teacher had closed the door as the 18-year-old shooter was approaching, but that the door didn’t lock as expected.

Many parents across Nebraska took to social media immediately after the shooting to express gratitude that district buildings have locked and secure entrances. But some parents also expressed concern about their school’s security.

“The first time I picked up my son, I was never asked for an ID. They know me now, but what about that first time?” said Jessica Marie Howe, an Omaha Public Schools parent. “I don’t know what we can do as a community, but I can’t handle this anxiety I have about sending my son to school. And it gets worse and worse with every tragic event.”

Side exits are a problem, said Brad Podany, a security guard at Omaha South High School.

Podany said the high school has about 30 exits in the entire building. Before the pandemic, there was a big push for teachers to guard each exit because students kept leaving voluntarily or opening doors for others to come into the school, he said. But the ongoing staff shortage has complicated that effort.

“It’s a constant fight, because you have students that will walk past the door, and someone will be outside knocking and they will just open the door to let anybody in,” he said.

Palmer said the state has trained secretaries to manage school entrances, so they know what to look for before letting someone in.

Schools have been doing more drills, and changing up the scenarios, she said.

A majority of schools have adopted the “I Love U Guys” standard response protocol, which gives educators, students and first responders common procedures and language in an emergency.

Locking classroom doors from the inside remains one of the most effective ways to deter an intruder, Palmer said.

“Up to this point, there has never been an intruder that breached a locked classroom door,” she said.

The safest place for a student is behind a locked classroom door where no one can see them from the hallway, she said.

“The idea is if we can get kids out of sight, there’s good chances they’re going to survive,” she said.

The No. 1 strategy, however, still remains having strong relationships between students and staff, she said. That way, the student has a caring adult in whom to confide.

About half the state’s school districts have a threat-assessment team, she said.

The pandemic slowed training of those teams, though, as districts dealt with other priorities, she said, but those are going to ramp up again now.

Nebraska is ahead of other states in developing teams and pairing them with the state’s Safe2Help hotline, Palmer said. The anonymous line lets people talk to Boys Town counselors who can either send immediate help in a life-threatening situation or report the information to the threat-assessment team for further evaluation.

Lincoln Public Schools has established its own Safe to Say reporting system.

Tips are crucial, because 81.9% of the time somebody knows something about what’s about to happen, Palmer said.

Since Jan. 7, 2020, the state received about 1,300 Safe2Help reports, she said.

“We know for a fact, or we’re pretty sure, that we’ve thwarted six shootings,” Palmer said.

Nebraska is the only state in the nation that has a report line that’s connected to school threat-assessment teams, according to Diana Schmidt, who manages the hotline at Boys Town. That connection ensures the information gets into the hands of those who need it.

“So as quickly as a Safe2Help Nebraska crisis counselor gets the information, they can even still be engaging with the tipster and send the information to a district team,” she said.

Palmer said authorities still would benefit from having more eyes scanning social media.

“And that’s not artificial intelligence, that needs to be by a human being,” she said.

In almost every incident in the last decade, there were red flags, she said. Though admittedly, Palmer added, there’s often little time for authorities to act on those postings.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt will be creating a task force to review school safety in Nebraska schools. Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, asked him to form the group to review current school safety, security and preparedness practices.

The group, she said, should identify strategies and solutions to ensure Nebraska schools remain safe.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, last month said the “root cause” of mass shootings is mental illness.

The state will, he said, “continue to look for ways to strengthen our mental health services and foster effective communication between first responders, educators, medical professionals and law enforcement to better identify and treat mental health issues.”

Critics on social media noted that Ricketts vetoed a bill in 2018 that would have used private funds to hire a social worker in each of the state’s 17 educational service units, with the goal of identifying children in need of behavioral health services so they could be connected to community resources. The $3.6 million program would have been funded for three years with private donations.

At the time, Ricketts said he opposed the bill because it would have obligated the state to run a privately funded grant program that would have duplicated efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services. He also noted that donations could still be given directly to the service units.

Blomstedt said the state “definitely can be better” in providing mental health services in rural areas.

A portion of the federal COVID-19 relief aid has already been targeted toward mental health concerns that arose from the pandemic.

There are several Nebraska counties that have no providers living in them, according to Blomstedt.

“There’s just flatly areas that are just underserved, and shortages everywhere else,” he said.

In plans adopted last year, about 20% of Nebraska districts indicated they want to use some of their federal COVID-19 money to address mental health issues for both students and staff.

Many are hiring more licensed mental health practitioners to allow more students to receive therapy, or giving existing staff more hours to help students.

Some state legislators, though, have publicly said the solution needs to involve changes to firearm laws.

Much like on the national level, such efforts in Nebraska have failed to gain approval in recent years. Among the failed efforts was a “red-flag” bill in 2020. The legislation would have allowed a family member, household member, school superintendent or law enforcement official to petition a judge to have firearms temporarily removed from a person deemed a “significant risk.” Ricketts opposed the measure. Several other gun-related bills that year brought hundreds of opponents to the state Capitol.

Sen. John Cavanaugh told the Omaha World-Herald a day after the shooting in Texas that all options needed to be on the table.

“If our representatives in Congress will not protect children, we may need to act at the state level,” he said.

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