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Nebraska teachers consider responses if danger comes to school doors — 'no one is going to die on my shift'

In the days after Nikolas Cruz walked into his former high school in Parkland, Florida, pulled a fire alarm and opened fire, Norris High School teacher Mary Schlieder stood in her classroom and took stock — then cleared out a closet.

She figured she could squeeze two, maybe three of her students in there if the unthinkable happened, but she wondered as she did this, if she was overreacting to the news of yet another deadly school shooting.

So she asked a group of teachers that day: Am I being irrational?

The answer from her coworkers was a resounding no, a waterfall of “I do the same things.”

One teacher said she tried to identify the strongest boys in her class who could quickly barricade the door. Another worried about a window in the classroom, another about remembering to tell her kids to silence their cellphones.

“I think every teacher is thinking this way,” she said last week. “This isn’t new. This is something we’ve been thinking about for a long, long, long, long time.”

For a while now, Lincoln Southeast High School English teacher Paul Smith has kept a small sledgehammer in his closet, because the latest renovation meant the windows in his room no longer open. If worse came to worst, he figures, he could smash out a window and help his kids escape, though it’s two stories up. He’s still looking for something kids could use to lower themselves to the ground. 

“Sometimes you have to save yourself,” he said. “I’ve told the kids if it comes to that and we’re in a situation, no one is going to die on my shift.”

Tim Royers, who teaches history and government at Millard West High School, has not only thought about such things, he’s done them.

In 2011, when a Millard South High School student shot two administrators, the initial information indicated the shooter was heading west. Royers pushed file cabinets against the door to protect his students.

Those are things he still debates to himself, though, wondering if in a few split seconds it would be safer to barricade the doors or if that would make too much noise, since the idea in a lockdown is to be quiet and out of sight.

Since then, a bond issue paid for school renovations, cameras and other security upgrades in Millard schools. Their classroom doors lock now; the entrances are restricted.

Teachers don't want to be armed 

Several teachers interviewed said they appreciate their districts' security measures, despite wondering how they'd react in the classroom itself — and they don’t see arming teachers as a solution.

Maddie Fennel, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said teachers already have too many responsibilities and don’t need to be a security guard, too. There are liability issues that would certainly raise insurance costs, the chance for accidents or other mishaps. And arming teachers would hinder one of the most important jobs of an educator — to develop strong relationships with kids, she said.

“It’s not a good idea,” Fennel said. “When you look at other countries that want to end violence, they lower the access to guns, they don’t put more guns in school.”

President Donald Trump fueled the debate in the wake of the Florida shooting, saying trained, armed teachers would be a deterrent and suggesting they receive bonuses for the added responsibility.

At least 10 states have laws allowing staff to have access to firearms on school grounds, according to the Education Commission of the States, and news stories have highlighted schools in states such as Texas, Colorado and Ohio — especially those in rural areas — that allow teachers access to guns.

Nebraska law allows only on-duty, uniformed law enforcement officers to carry firearms on school property, though state Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings has said he plans to introduce a bill next session to allow specially trained teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons.

But both nationally — and in Nebraska — many educators oppose the idea.

Royers, who was named 2016 Nebraska Teacher of the Year, shared his feelings on Twitter: “I’m not going to mince words here — if we arm teachers I’m done. I love my job. I love what I get to wake up and do every single day. But that is not what I signed up for. That’s not the culture I want to be a part of. I will walk away if that is ever a reality.”

Royers said he decided to say publicly what he’d heard so many teachers say.

“To me it doesn’t imply more safety, it implies danger is an inevitability,” he said.

State wants schools to be ready

The focus in Nebraska has been on other precautions, spearheaded since 2015 by state security director Jolene Palmer.

Palmer’s position with the Nebraska Department of Education was created by state law in 2014. She’s required to conduct security assessments on all schools by Aug. 31, 2019. So far, Palmer said, about 500 of the 1,130 public schools in the state have submitted self-assessments — a first step — and the state has conducted about 370 assessments.

Palmer said her recommendations for schools include best practices gleaned from experts and lessons from school shootings. Those recommendations include:

* Locking all external and internal doors. When Adam Lanza gunned down 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School — 20 of them 6- and 7-year-olds — he passed by two locked classroom doors before finding one open, Palmer said. Few have been seriously injured or killed behind locked classroom doors, she added.

* Putting staff members at entry points when students come in and out, and at other times.

* Following a standard response protocol developed by the Colorado-based I Love You Guys Foundation. It uses common, simple language to alert and direct school staff and students in an emergency. Palmer chose it, she said, because all the material is offered for free and because the largest number of Nebraska districts — including Lincoln Public Schools and Omaha metro schools —  already were using it. She wants those protocols to be the same across the state, so a student who moves from one district to another will know what to do in an emergency. State officials recommend two lockout and lockdown drills each year.

* Develop threat assessment procedures to help identify potential problems — and get kids help early. The state has offered voluntary threat assessment training sessions, and so far 85 districts have participated.

Identifying problems early is key

The best way to protect students, she said, is to prevent the shootings by identifying potential problems early on, and, by extension focusing on building relationships and helping students who might feel isolated.

“That’s really a mindset we need to work on, to include everybody, make sure they feel wanted,” she said. “I would tell you the relationship piece is the most important, but it’s not tangible. It’s harder to describe, measure.”

At a packed school board meeting in Lincoln last week, the focus of concerned parents was more on the crisis response.

The protocols used in a lockdown by LPS — and recommended by the state — require staff to lock classroom doors, turn off the lights, get out of sight and remain quiet. Some parents question whether a “run, hide, fight” protocol would be better.

The I Love You Guys Foundation emergency response protocols, created by John-Michael and Ellen Keyes after their daughter Emily was killed by a gunman who took six students hostage at Platte Canyon High School in 2006, are used by about 25,000 schools, agencies and organizations across the nation.

Palmer said they’re based on law enforcement response and follow the idea that “intel should drive our actions.” That means getting behind locked doors and out of sight until more information is known about the situation and whether other action is warranted. 

“You need to have all the information you can before you take action,” she said.

She said training also includes talking with teachers about evading or defending themselves and their students if that’s possible, though specific training is left to individual districts. She thinks having a baseball bat in the closet, or wasp spray by the door is OK, but stressed that every situation, and every school is different.

“We’re trying to empower teachers to make the best decisions,” she said. “We want teachers to have a great understanding about how to do that.”

Protocols can save lives

LPS Director of Security Joe Wright said if teachers or students know where a threat is and there’s a quick way to get out, they should.

One day the principal at Lincoln Southwest High School came into the building with a sign saying “I’m a threat” and asked students at lunch — in an open commons area with no place to take cover — what they should do. The answer: Run out the doors in the opposite direction.

Often, though, those in the school don’t know where the threat is, which means they need to get behind locked doors and out of sight, Wright said.

Richard Myles, who has been superintendent of Scottsbluff Public Schools for eight years, came from Colorado, where he got way too much experience with school shootings.

He was a middle school principal in Jefferson County Public Schools when two students walked into Columbine High School in 1999 and killed 12 students and a teacher. Myles' son survived the shooting in the high school.

Myles was active in implementing many of the school security procedures now recommended by the state — including the I Love You Guys response protocols — in Scottsbluff and area schools. He worked with Scottsbluff police, and a SWAT team from Colorado provided training. The schools do quarterly lockdown drills using different scenarios, he said.

Several teachers and administrators said that’s one thing the Florida shooting illustrated: they need to practice situations where not all kids are in class, such as lunch or moving between classes.

Rural schools — because they’re more isolated, with longer law enforcement response times — have some different protocols, Myles said. He's not a proponent of arming teachers, even in remote locations, preferring schools employ armed and trained security guards or police because of the amount of training required.

After he’d left the Jefferson County middle school, a shooter came there, too, but was tackled by a math teacher after wounding two students. Both recovered. That math teacher, he said, was at the front door as students were leaving because of security changes they’d made that included making sure the doors were supervised at all times.

“There were a number of times, sadly throughout my career, these tragedies occurred and you realize they can happen anytime,” he said. “The only good news as school leaders and law enforcement personnel is we’ve developed a whole lot of strategies and protocols that have saved lives.”

Several teachers said there's a balancing act between making sure students are prepared and maintaining a positive, not fearful, atmosphere.

At Southwest High School, journalism teacher Brandi Benson said she's got great faith in her administration and the plans it has in place to keep kids safe — and she expects her students to take drills seriously. 

She's also well aware that there are shelves full of heavy yearbooks that could, she's thought, be used to defend her students if the unthinkable happened in her classroom.

Journal Star Newsmakers podcast: Safety in Lincoln schools following mass shooting in Florida

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star file photo 

Lincoln Police School Resource Officer Tom Stumbo checks a door and tries to see inside the Media Center during a recent security exercise at Lincoln East High School. 

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Nebraska Legislature in no hurry to address gun violence

Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings sits on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, arguably its most conservative member.

He's a member of the National Rifle Association, holds a concealed carry permit, and believes state senators, those with good training, should be able to tote their guns to work at the Capitol.

He said he plans to introduce a bill in 2019 that would allow school boards to arm teachers voluntarily who are trained "extraordinarily well."

So Halloran thinks it's a bit odd that he would be the one on the Judiciary Committee to support a bill that would keep young people who had been adjudicated in juvenile court from possessing firearms until they are 25, with violation of that being a felony.

Others more inclined to support gun control haven't let the bill out of committee, he said, and now LB990, a priority measure of Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, appears stuck. 

Some state legislatures are racing to react to the most recent public anxiety about gun violence — Florida is working on arming teachers, others are talking about banning military-style assault weapons, prohibiting high-capacity firearm magazines, and "red flag" laws. Nebraska won't be running with them this year.  

It's too late for new bill introductions. And with 24 days left in the short session, and scores of priority bills and the state budget to deal with, gun-related bills are seeing little action. 

Here's some of what the 105th Legislature has done concerning guns in its long and short sessions:

* Senators killed a bill (LB81) that would have allowed counties to raise the fee paid by people applying for handgun permits.

* They passed a bill (LB100) that requires people who ask a mental health board to reinstate their handgun purchase or concealed carry permit to provide "clear and convincing evidence" to support the reinstatement.

* And last session, senators filibustered an NRA-backed bill (LB68) introduced by Sen. Mike Hilgers that would erase the authority of Lincoln and other Nebraska communities to enact their own gun regulations — with a single exception for Omaha. It advanced to second-round consideration, but is not prioritized nor expected to come back for debate.  

* Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks' bill (LB780) to ban bump stocks, or multiburst trigger activators, and firearm silencers, has no priority designation and will probably die when the session ends in April. 

The Judiciary Committee, which is the pass-through for nearly all gun-related bills, has a majority of members who lean left, even with a committee chairwoman — Sen. Laura Ebke — who is a Libertarian and opposed to more restrictions on guns. Four members are Democrats, two are Republicans, and Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers is independent. 

The issue of what to do about gun violence has become more of a philosophical argument for committee members.

Ebke addressed the issue of gun rights and gun violence last month in a letter to constituents.

"Some would argue that further restrictions on gun rights are the answer," she wrote. 

But if you enact a ban, what do you do with the 300 million guns that are already in the hands and gun cabinets of U.S. residents? she said. How are you going to bring them back in?

"I've always (and will continue to support) the right to keep and bear arms. But I'm willing to have the conversation about mitigating the fears many have to see if we can find common ground."

What can the Legislature realistically do, without violating the Constitution, she asked.

It's awfully tough to get people on the two sides together to talk without calling each other names and being disagreeable, she said. 

So along with no action, maybe no talking, either. 

Sen. Adam Morfeld, a committee member, handgun owner and a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law, would like to see action, if not this year then next. 

He's not anti-gun, he said. But he's in favor of reasonable restrictions of gun rights that prevent tragedies like what happened last month in Parkland, Florida.

He is considering a so-called "red flag" bill next year that would enable law enforcement to temporarily restrict ownership and possession of firearms if people have mental health issues that could lead to violence, suicidal threats, threats to harm others, or other warning signs of dangerous behavior. 

Background checks may also need to be more stringent, he said.  

When there's a domestic assault, law enforcement should have the ability to confiscate guns temporarily, and he has a bill (LB394) that was advanced from the committee that would do that. But it has no priority designation. 

The state should at least look at an assault weapons ban, Morfeld said, and at the same time address mental health services.

"We have gutted our community-based mental health services for the last 10 to 20 years," he said. "What happens is people end up self-medicating, generally getting involved in illegal activity, and sometimes that illegal activity then erupts into gun violence."

But that will all have to wait. 

Sen. Bob Krist, a member of the committee and Democratic candidate for governor, said the Second Amendment must be respected, but what businesses such as Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart have done — raising the purchase age for guns to 21 — is "extremely appropriate." 

First National Bank took a strong stand in breaking its relationship with the NRA, but the criticism and threats to the bank that followed from state treasurer candidates John Murante and Taylor Royal were  wrong, he said. 

"Why would we ever try to penalize a business for taking a stand against gun violence?" he said. 

He's also disappointed that it's taking so long for the state to complete safety assessments in Nebraska's schools, as required by a law passed in 2014. 

The legislation created a state school security position with duties including conducting an assessment of the security of each public school building in the state by Aug. 31, 2019.

State School Security Director Jolene Palmer has said that of the 1,130 schools in the state, 500 have done their own safety assessments and 370 outside assessments are complete.  

Pansing Brooks said some Nebraska senators may be reluctant to alter gun laws, even in the wake of so much violence, because they want to keep their elected office.  

"I think that people are scared that it’s seen as anti-gun,” she said. And anti-Second Amendment. 

But she holds on to hope for common-sense laws, and often quotes the writing of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in District of Columbia v. Heller.

Like most rights, Scalia said, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

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'Gaps' in gun background check system must be fixed, local law enforcement officials say

The system Lincoln-area cops and gun sellers rely upon to keep firearms away from people whose mental illnesses can make them dangerous is flawed, law enforcement officials say.

Known as the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, that database has become a focus in the nationwide discussion on gun violence since last month's school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The background check system has improved in recent years, as Nebraska and other states have scanned tens of thousands of records — available before only in hard-copy form — so they're more easily accessed by those who need them.

Still, law enforcement officials say, blind spots exist.

For example, not all mental health records are included, even for people who have repeatedly been taken into emergency protective custody by law enforcement.

And while the system is available to gun sellers and sheriffs for issuing handgun purchase permits, it can't be accessed by police in real time as they try to determine whether someone may lawfully possess a firearm.

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner and Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister say changes are needed to help their officers ensure guns are not in the wrong hands.

"I do believe these gaps need to be shored up," Bliemeister said.

But mental health advocates warn some gun control measures might erode people's constitutional rights.

Kasey Moyer, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Nebraska, opposes President Donald Trump's recent idea to let law enforcement seize firearms from people without due process if they are believed to be dangerous.

Federal law prohibits anyone who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital or involuntarily placed in outpatient mental health treatment from possessing a gun.

But when law enforcement takes people into emergency protective custody, they can avoid making the no-gun list if they accept voluntary treatment or have their case dismissed.

That concerns Wagner. 

Last year, his Lancaster County deputies responded to 109 reports of mental health issues and took 18 people into emergency protective custody, he said. The percentage of people who are involuntarily committed, and thus unable to buy a gun, is smaller, he said.

The sheriff said he would support a moratorium on gun purchases by anyone who is placed in emergency protective custody.

Wagner's office began issuing firearm purchase permits, required when someone buys a handgun at a store or in a private sale, in 1991. The permits aren't required for long guns such as rifles and shotguns, but gun dealers check the same database before authorizing those sales.

That was challenging when the records were available only in paper form.

"(For 23 years) we were issuing firearm purchase permits, and we had no idea unless they (purchasers) self-disclosed that they had been adjudicated mentally ill,” he said.

Even with a digital system, police still lack access to full background checks when they encounter someone with a gun. That bothers Wagner and Bliemeister.

"We are tasked with enforcing statutes, the law, and we need to be able to have access to make those decisions, as do the prosecutors themselves,” Bliemeister said.

Mental health records are so heavily protected by federal medical privacy laws that police can't see them, the chief said. And officers might take someone into emergency protective custody but never know if that person is committed to a state psychiatric hospital.

Bliemeister said a 2016 case illustrates the challenge for police in determining whether to return a seized gun.

In that case, a man who barricaded himself and his mother inside his home was taken into emergency protective custody, and police seized his gun.

After he was out of treatment, the man's attorney argued the gun should be returned and showed a police department attorney a copy of the man's commitment order.

The order proved to police that he was federally prohibited from possessing the gun under federal law, so they didn't give it back.

But officers can't access digital forms of those records themselves, so they might be allowing prohibited people to keep their guns, even if they've been in contact with law enforcement.

The chief doesn't want to criminalize mental illness or vilify people who deal with it, Bliemeister said.

In fact, he said, people with mental illness are more likely to fall victim to crime than commit it. But gun access remains a concern.

Lincoln police investigated 376 attempted suicides — a 22-year high — as well as 44 suicides last year, which was tied for the most in that same stretch.

About 40 percent of suicides in the past two decades were committed using a firearm, police said. Among children ages 10 to 14, 1 in 3 suicides involved a gun.

Moyer, of the mental health group, said suicide among children underscores the importance of gun owners securing their firearms.

"They don’t think long-term," she said.

Moyer believes the focus on the nation's gun violence problem should not be on those with mental illness, but those with behavioral issues, she said: "We have to quit associating mental illness with dangerousness."

Courtesy photo