State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte fell just short Thursday of keeping his student discipline bill alive in Nebraska’s 2020 legislative session.
Lawmakers voted 32-15 in favor of ending a filibuster on Legislative Bill 147, one shy of the 33 votes — representing two-thirds of the 49 senators — needed to cut off debate.
As a result, it’s unlikely the bill will return to the agenda before the COVID-19-delayed Unicameral session adjourns Aug. 13.
The roll-call vote just before noon ended LB 147’s third contentious day of debate since January, with an opponent bringing up a 2014 incident involving a now-retired North Platte Public Schools teacher just before the tally.
The bill would have given teachers and school employees more protection against being disciplined or fired if they had to physically restrain an unruly student to protect that student or others.
Thursday’s vote also prevented consideration of the latest version of a Groene amendment requiring school districts to train employees in de-escalating confrontations to better avoid violent outcomes.
That training would have been financed with a portion of state lottery profits as part of a separate bill (LB 920) that won first-round approval July 21.
Omaha Sens. Justin Wayne and Ernie Chambers, the Legislature’s only two Black members, prevented Groene’s amendment from being considered by filing separate motions to block LB 147’s path.
Groene, chairman of the Education Committee, said his motion to end debate failed because one of three Omaha senators reneged on promises to help break the filibuster even if they didn’t back the bill later.
The District 42 lawmaker, who represents Lincoln County, won a 25-14 vote in May 2019 to pull the bill out of his own committee, which he said was split 4-4 over advancing it.
In a text to The Telegraph, Groene said Sen. Rick Kolowski went back on a promise by voting to continue the filibuster. Kolowski represents southwest Omaha in the Legislature.
Based on Kolowski’s promise, Groene said, he believed “I had 33” votes to proceed toward first-round approval of LB 147.
Omaha Sens. Steve Lathrop and John McCollister joined the 32-lawmaker majority to end initial debate.
Both told senators Thursday they were leaning against LB 147 but had told Groene they’d vote to cut off debate to allow further work on his bill at a later stage of floor consideration.
Sens. Tom Brewer of Gordon, Steve Erdman of Bayard, Dan Hughes of Venango and Matt Williams of Gothenburg also voted to end first-round debate on Groene’s bill.
Thursday’s discussion partly echoed earlier debates Jan. 13 and July 21, with opponents fearing increased mistreatment of students and backers citing teachers frustrated or injured by students who disrupt their classes.
The Nebraska State Education Association, which represents most of the state’s public school teachers, has generally backed LB 147.
Groene said groups representing school boards and administrators backed the latest version of the amendment he wanted to offer.
Advocacy groups for students with disabilities have consistently opposed LB 147, alleging it would leave such students more vulnerable to mistreatment.
Groene said his amendment would aim to defuse student-teacher confrontations, not aggravate them, if senators fighting LB 147 would let it be considered.
He said he has heard from teachers across the state begging for more help in dealing with disruptive students, as well as others who suffered injuries, lost their jobs or left teaching under the status quo.
They end up restraining students anyway, but “they’re out there trying to do the best they can with no guidance from us,” Groene told senators. “We owe them some help.”
But the bill’s foes, all from Lincoln, Omaha or the latter’s suburbs, said LB 147 posed too much risk to minority and disabled students who have been historically abused or suffered racial discrimination by some educators.
Some opponents showed sympathy for teachers’ plight when laws or school policies discourage or prohibit them from making physical contact with disruptive students
Others, however, said the case against Groene’s bill has only been strengthened in light of calls for broader nationwide action against racism since the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
Even before that, Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said, some Black high school students in Omaha urged her to oppose LB 147 during a 2019 luncheon in Omaha.
They told her, “Whatever you do, don’t give the teachers and the administrators more opportunity to lay their hands on us,” she said.
She and Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz said they had worked to bring all sides together without success. Teachers do have authority to use “reasonable force,” but “they are not told that in the schools,” Pansing Brooks said.
Walz, without citing names or dates, also referenced a February 2014 incident that began with a disruption in a class at North Platte’s Jefferson Elementary School.
The North Platte school board voted 4-2 that June to overturn a recommendation by then-Superintendent Marty Bassett that veteran physical education teacher Mark Woodhead’s contract not be renewed. Woodhead returned to teaching and later retired.
Bassett, who had become superintendent in 2012, resigned soon after the board’s vote. Current Superintendent Ron Hanson was hired in 2015 after Larry Ramaekers served as interim superintendent for a year.
Testimony before the school board’s vote indicated a student in Woodhead’s class was acting out, left the room and went to the office.
Woodhead followed and physically removed the student from the office, according to the testimony.
“There was a teacher in North Platte, and I think that was the root cause of what started this whole situation” leading to LB 147’s introduction, Walz said Thursday.
But “I don’t think (the bill’s) going to stop the problem that we have,” she added. “It’s not going to prevent the issues that we have.”
Groene, first elected to the Legislature in November 2014, confirmed that the incident was one reason he started working on a student discipline bill four years ago.
It might have been avoided had the training requirement he wanted to enact through LB 147 been in place at that time, he told senators.
“You should be for this bill, people on the left,” Groene said just before his motion to break the filibuster fell one vote short. “You should be for this bill.”