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Nebraska lawmakers consider adding more social workers to schools

March 14, 2018 GMT

LINCOLN — Loose staples couldn’t be left on the classroom floor.

If the student spotted them, she would use them to harm herself.

Another student had been to school only two days months after the school year started.

Teachers have told State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont that they need more mental health resources for students.

“Each year I have several students on my caseload who would benefit from consistent and effective mental health support,” one Omaha teacher said in a letter Walz read on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature. “It’s just not available.”

Amid a growing concern nationally about student behavioral and mental health issues, Walz introduced a bill that would make more social workers available in the state.

Legislative Bill 998 would create the Collaborative School Behavioral and Mental Health Program, which would put a social worker in each of the state’s 17 educational service units to help students who have behavioral or mental health problems.

Educational service units provide additional services to local school districts.

The social worker would also train teachers and other school personnel, work with parents, and connect with other community resources to help students.

The bill was prioritized by Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln.

Per the bill, the program would only be implemented when $3.6 million is raised from private donors to fund the program for three years.

The prospect of using private money gave some senators pause. Others said they didn’t think the bill would make a significant difference.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha offered an amendment that would establish a point person at each school in a district to work with the social worker, but she said she thinks there are too many kids in one educational service unit for a lone social worker to help.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said he was worried taxpayers would end up picking up the bill for the program after private funding ends. The senator said it was a slick way to get the program through in a tight budget year.

In response, Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango offered an amendment that says an educational service unit cannot use property taxes, state aid or money from the state’s general fund on a program started with private grant funds.

A student in Sen. Matt Williams’ district wrote him a letter asking for barbed wire fencing around the school. Another letter asked for stronger windows.

Williams, of Gothenburg, told his fellow lawmakers that students are concerned about safety in the schools. Administrators in his district are worried about mental health.

One social worker is not going to solve the problem, but it’s a step in the right direction, Williams said.

Monday’s debate ended without a vote to advance the bill. Walz said she expects the bill to come back up for debate later this week.