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.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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