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Education
editor's picktopical
ACLU: Too many schools have police but no counselors, social workers

In Nebraska, 23 percent of students — more than 71,000 — attend schools with school resource officers but no counselors, psychologists, nurses or social workers, a study by the American Civil Liberties Union found.

The ACLU analyzed 2015-16 data from the federal Office of Civil Rights data, comparing numbers of school resource officers to numbers of psychologists, social workers and counselors. Nationally, 31 percent of students are in schools with police but none of those support positions.

The ACLU's report highlighted the fact that many schools don’t have the numbers of the social workers, counselors, school nurses and psychologists recommended by professional organizations.

The ACLU, which opposes having police officers assigned to schools, has conducted a number of studies based on the federal data that show students of color, those with disabilities and other marginalized students are disproportionately arrested, suspended and expelled. 

Within six months of the school shooting that left 17 dead in Parkland, Florida, a little over a year ago, more than $1 billion was added to school security budgets by state legislatures, with school resource officers one of the largest items, the report said.

ACLU officials argue that schools should be allocating scarce resources to positions recommended by mental health professionals, not to pay for school resource officers.

Rose Godinez, legal and policy counsel for the ACLU of Nebraska who co-authored a study of Nebraska’s school police programs, said that's true in Nebraska.

“In Nebraska, there is a ratio of 347 students to 1 counselor — which is 40 percent beyond best practices," she said. "This data should be a clarion call to all hard-working, compassionate school board members and superintendents that it’s time to prioritize counselors over cops to ensure all Nebraska students can access a high-quality public education.”

Some school officials say those positions are part of a bigger picture.

Russ Uhing, Lincoln Public Schools director of student services, said while LPS has focused on increasing the number of social workers, school psychologists and counselors in recent years, those positions are part of a broader effort to make schools safer.

“That is not done in isolation,” he said. “It’s a coordinated effort around staffing, mental health supports and partnerships with the community. It’s diversion programs, it’s a calm, safe predictive environment … all of those things work to keep a positive climate and culture.”

The ACLU of Nebraska was among vocal critics of adding school resource officers to middle schools at Lincoln Public Schools.

In addition to disparity concerns, opponents say having officers assigned to schools can lead to arrests or tickets for incidents that should be handled through school discipline procedures.

Proponents said officers improve school safety and help develop positive relationships between police and students.

The debate has moved to the Legislature, where Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing-Brooks introduced a bill that would mandate schools delineate the role of the officers and require training and data collection to evaluate the program.

Despite concerns raised by opponents, LPS added school resource officers to middle schools but it was part of a broader effort to improve school safety through an interlocal agreement with the city. 

As part of that agreement, LPS beefed up mental health supports: Through community partnerships, LPS added or increased the work mental health therapists do at 36 schools. And the district added a social worker and a therapist to work directly with the district’s threat assessment team.

Uhing noted that therapists play a different role than counselors or social workers.

Before the interlocal agreement with the city, the district had been working to increase staff in areas noted by the ACLU study. 

It has nearly doubled the number of school social workers in the past five years from about 20 to 40 full-time equivalent positions. The number of elementary counselors has increased from about 5 to 19. The district has added about 14 school psychologists since 2011-12 and this year added 11 psychotherapists.

Despite those increases, the ratio of those employees to students remains substantially below those the ACLU study says professional organizations recommend: 250 students to one social worker; 250 students to one counselor and 500-700 students to one school psychologist.

Other findings from the ACLU study include:

* 82 percent of Nebraska students (254,691) attend schools that fail to meet the nationally recommended ratios for student-to-counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers. 

* 35 percent of Nebraska students attend schools that report having police programs while 1.3 percent of those have no counselors. That compares to 43 percent and 3.5 percent nationally.


GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star 

Rachel Bell performs on the rings, thrilling Thursday's matinee crowd at the Sesostris Shrine Circus in Lincoln. The annual event runs through Sunday at the Lancaster Event Center.


Standalone

RINGS ARE THE THING

Rachel Bell performs on the rings, thrilling Thursday's matinee crowd at the Sesostris Shrine Circus in Lincoln. The annual event runs through Sunday at the Lancaster Event Center.


Legislature
editor's picktopical
Behavioral health providers say rate increase is needed to sustain services

On a snowy Sunday during Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz's first year in the Legislature, she was at the Capitol catching up on some work when a young woman came into her office. 

The woman had come in to get warm, Bolz said, and asked to use the phone to call family members. When she couldn't reach them, she started to cry, Bolz said. 

The woman, the senator learned, was in a mental health crisis, and so Bolz drove her to get medical help. 

"I'm so grateful that those providers were there to help that young woman in her moment of need," she said. 

Bolz was speaking at a news conference, along with 60 behavioral health providers, to advocate for a bill (LB327) that would increase by 5 percent each of the next two years the Medicaid and Probation Administration service provider rates paid for mental health services and substance abuse treatment.  

The woman's story reminded her that if Nebraska doesn't adequately address behavioral health, "it will come walking in and knocking on our door, and we will be required to pay more attention to it."  

Too many people go without the necessary care, Bolz said. 

A study by the behavioral health division of the Department of Health and Human Services showed rates paid to providers is from 7 percent to 35 percent below the actual cost of providing the services. 

But Gov. Pete Ricketts' budget proposal recommended a 2 percent increase for long-term care services only. The Legislature's preliminary budget recommended 2 percent increases across the board for Medicaid providers, including physicians, hospitals and nursing homes. 

Bolz's bill to get providers the reimbursements they need will have a hearing March 26 in front of the Appropriations Committee. 

Nationally, and in Nebraska, about 62 percent of mental health providers and 69 percent of substance abuse providers rely on funding from public sources like Medicaid, according to Annette Dubas, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Behavioral Health Organizations. 

"We cannot continue to sustain quality efforts at rates that are less than what it costs to do business," said Topher Hansen, executive director of CenterPointe, which provides addiction and mental health treatment. "We are relying on charitable people in our community to make up the difference. … It's not the way to run a good system."

The last thing a great community wants is a fragile behavioral health system, he said. 

At CenterPointe this year, he said, they will serve about 3,200 people, about 30 percent of whom are Medicaid clients. Three years ago, when managed care came in, the providers all went down to base Medicaid rates and have not increased rates since then. 

Mary Barry-Magsamen, chief executive officer of St. Monica's, which offers addiction recovery services for women, said when she started at the nonprofit years ago, fundraising wasn't a part of the mission.

"And today almost all of us have staff that are dedicated just to fundraising because that gap has grown so large. In order to survive we've had to become development experts, which is not what we got into the business to do," she said. 

The lack of rate increases over the years has led to more than 25 providers in the state closing, said Pat Connell, vice president for behavioral health for Boys Town National Research Hospital.

"It makes it very difficult to recruit mental health professionals to move into the state of Nebraska because we cannot pay competitive rates that they're getting in other states, the salaries that they're getting," Connell said.  

Nearly one in five Nebraskans have a mental illness, but 88 of Nebraska's 93 counties are designated as federal mental health professional shortage areas, said Andy Hale, vice president for advocacy for the Nebraska Hospital Association. Seventy-eight counties have no practicing psychiatrists and 32 counties have no behavioral health provider of any kind. 

"When people suffer from behavioral health issues and have nowhere to go, they end up in our emergency departments and they end up in our jails," Hale said. 

Lincoln police officers were called to incidents 3,900 times in 2018 because someone was in a mental health crisis. That number has gone up every year since 2012, said Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister. 

Officers have special training but are dependent on providers to support them and those people who need help. 

"When our response stops, we can turn that over (to those providers) so maybe the quality of life of the individuals that are struggling and their family members can improve," he said.


Local
editor's pick
Cindy Lange-Kubick: 'How would you feel … if your father was killed in front of your eyes?'

The Yazidi friends sit on brown leather couches in the west Lincoln living room, where Khairi Hesso lives with his wife and three children.

They are preparing for a trip.

Khairi has filled the gas tank of his Pathfinder. He’s checked the SUV’s tires and brakes.

Zeyad Eesa arrived early Wednesday with the poster board signs: YEZIDIS SEEK JUSTICE. SAVE YEZIDIS AND CHRISTIANS.

And Shireen Jardo Alhanto is here with her photographs. A father, a mother, uncles, brothers, cousins.

Her missing family.

Later, the signs and those pictures and their suitcases will be piled in the Nissan and the friends — along with Khairi’s sister-in-law — will leave town, following three buses filled with their neighbors.

One hundred-fifty people, Zeyad says. Maybe 200.

The Yazidis — men, women and children — will travel through the night and most of Thursday to Washington, D.C., where they will be joined by hundreds more from across the country and Canada.

On Friday, they will gather in front of the White House.

They will show their faces and the faces of their missing and murdered loved ones.

“We want international protection for the Yazidis in Iraq,” Zeyad says. “If not protection, we want people to be able to leave.”

In America, we know the story of these displaced people from the comfort of our own couches.

A centuries-old persecution and a modern-day genocide.

It was Aug. 3, 2014, when ISIS fighters stormed the villages in Northern Iraq. Convert to Islam or be killed, they commanded.

Yazidi girls were kidnapped and taken as brides for fighters. Men were murdered in front of their children. Houses were set on fire. Boys were captured to be trained as fighters.

The lucky ones fled to the Sinjar Mountains, and some were eventually welcomed to safety in other countries, like the United States. Many of them — 3,000 in all — found a home in Lincoln.

Zeyad is a father of three, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army. He arrived four years ago, but his parents are still in Iraq.

He calls them every day, worried for their safety.

He wants to bring them here.

Khairi has been in Lincoln for 20 years, a member of the city’s first Yazidi family.

“We came as refugees from Syria,” he says. “Saddam Hussein was forcing families to join the Saddam army, so they run away.”

Shireen was kidnapped by ISIS and passed from captor to captor. She was tortured. Her nose broken. When she grew so weak that she couldn’t walk, her captors threw her from a moving car.

During her imprisonment, she asked a cousin to tattoo her name on her arm with ashes so her family would know it was her, in case she was killed.

She made it to safety and works part-time at McDonald’s now. She is learning English. She shares her story in Kurdish, translated by her friends.

They are bound together, the Yazidis say on the morning of their departure.

This trip grew out of another atrocity. News they'd read in the foreign press — the discovery in late February of 50 heads of young Yazidi girls by British troops in Syria.

“We are asking for justice,” Zeyad says. “To get those still alive girls out of their hands.”

Thousands of Yazidis remain missing, still held by ISIS or dead.

Others are awaiting permission to enter the United States, the system stalled under the Trump administration.

ISIS is desperate for money, they say. Demanding ransom for the return of family members years after their capture.

“It is ridiculous to buy your own relative,” Khairi says. “But this is what we have to do.”

He points to the photographs. A little brown-eyed boy with a bowl cut, before ISIS kidnapped him. Five years later, the same boy gaunt in a relative’s bed, injured by shrapnel during his escape.

He is wearing pink socks dotted with cherries; pins hold the bones of his lower leg together.

His name is Zaenar. His parents are dead, most of his family is missing.

Khairi points to the pictures.

“We are trying to get people to understand, how would you feel if that happened to your loved one? If your father was killed in front of your eyes. If your sister was raped in front of your eyes.”

And from the couch, Shireen shows more photographs, the ones she keeps on her phone.

The man who kidnapped and sold her.

A young woman dressed in red and wearing pretty makeup.

The same woman — Shireen — after her torture, emaciated in a wheelchair.

She speaks in Kurdish and her friends explain for those of us who can’t understand.

“We cannot believe it can happen to us.”


Legislature
editor's picktopical
Nebraska raise for tipped wage earners deemed unservable this session

Amid growing frustration among some senators that controversial bills must have the support of 33 members to get to a vote, a proposal to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers was shelved Thursday. 

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who introduced the bill (LB400), said she had concerns that Speaker Jim Scheer wasn't willing to allow a vote even on Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart's floor amendment to raise the wage from $2.13 an hour to $4.50 an hour, without indexing the wage to the regular minimum wage. 

"I have some concerns about my colleagues and all of us being shielded from taking difficult votes on the record," she said. 

Similarly, no record vote was taken on the LGBTQ workplace equality bill, she said. 

With this bill, she said, "you're all going to get off scot-free, not having to be accountable to Nebraskans, to constituents, about where you stand on raising the subminimum wage from $2.13 an hour." 

Hunt said she thinks most Nebraskans believe tipped workers deserve a raise, especially when wage theft is rampant, when many restaurants are out of compliance in ensuring tipped staff are getting at least $9 an hour for their work, and when workers aren't taking home enough money to pay their taxes and many are dependent on government benefits to get by. 

Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, who opposed the bill, said he wanted to remind everyone that with the price of food going up, the price of meals in restaurants also is going up and the amount of a tip, when figured as a percentage of the meal, along with it. 

Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, who is in the restaurant business and was a lead opponent, said he told Hunt he was not willing to compromise on a wage somewhere between $2.13 an hour and $4.50 an hour. He countered with a suggestion, he later said he was not serious about, that maybe tips should be outlawed.

"If tips are the issue," he said, "if servers and waiters and waitresses aren't being paid enough, then if we outlawed tips they would be guaranteed the minimum wage, as a base wage. And competition would drive that wherever it might drive that."

That won't happen, he said, because if tips were removed at least half of servers and waiters would quit, "because they all understand that tips bring them well above the minimum wage."