Nevada school safety bill would stiffen punishments against violent students

Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 9:02 AM PDT
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LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Teachers from across Clark County came out in force to call on state lawmakers to make schools safer.

“I was assaulted by a student in my class,” CCSD kindergarten teacher Jessica Jones said during her testimony Thursday in support of a bill that would give schools greater power to discipline violent children. “The student grabbed me, threw me up against the wall. He pulled my arm with so much force that I thought he dislocated my shoulder.”

“I most recently was told by a 5-year-old that they wanted to stab me and watch me bleed out,” fellow CCSD kindergarten teacher Kristan Nigro said during her turn at the microphone. “(A different student) completely trashed my room and hit another student in the face with a hardcover book. (Another) went to my desk, grabbed a sharp pair of scissors and threw them at my face.”

These anecdotes, the teachers argued, contribute to what’s become a hostile work environment for some educators.

“Incidents like this are one of the primary reasons why so many educators are leaving the profession,” CCSD teacher Karl Byrd said.

The testimony was in favor of AB285, which stiffens punishments for students who repeatedly disrupt class with violent behavior.

“It’s not fair that a student can walk into a classroom and be violent and disruptive without any consequences,” Nigro said.

The bill would do away with what’s called Restorative Justice in Nevada schools. The state defines that term as intervention and support by the school to improve a student’s behavior.

The teachers who testified Thursday say that when put into practice, Restorative Justice failed them by being too lenient on violent students.

“That student in my classroom had learned that violence is acceptable because of the lack of discipline and consequences for bad behavior,” Jones said.

“It’s just a fancy buzzword and a complete failure,” Nigro said. “My story is an accurate depiction of what restorative justice looks like in schools. It’s not working and there’s no accountability.”

AB285 also does away with individualized plans for students causing problems in favor of progressive discipline, which takes a more direct approach to behavior change for kids. For example, it makes it easier for schools to expel violent children and put them in a behavioral school.

The teachers who testified today say it’s not just their lives that are being impacted by violent students.

“When children feel unsafe in school, they can’t focus,” Jones said. “Their attendance and grades begin to drop.”

The bill had several people speak in opposition. Holly Wellborn, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, was one of them. She cited concerns over what happens to the children who get expelled.

“We’re concerned that children will end up in the juvenile justice system unnecessarily when there could’ve been some kind of intervention at the elementary school level,” Wellborn said.

There are certain things that need to happen, Wellborn said, before a more aggressive approach to discipline can exist in Nevada schools.

“Until this body is willing to make that investment in those community-based supports, we are failing kids for the future and we’re failing our community for the future,” she said.

Others who testified against AB285 say Restorative Justice is being unfairly scapegoated, arguing that it hasn’t been properly put to use.

“It’s not a legislative issue,” Tonya Walls, a representative of Code Switch Restorative Justice for Girls of Color, argued. “It’s an implementation issue.”

A few dissenters noted that better behavior for kids starts outside the classroom, and that not all kids receive positive reinforcement in that area.

“Some of these kids don’t go home to a loving home,” Yesenia Gonzales, a parent of a special needs CCSD student, said.

CCSD parent Anna Binder testified in neutral. She said her child caused problems in class similar to what the teachers described in their testimonies.

“For three consecutive school years, I was not told,” Binder said, referencing her son’s violent behavior in class. “I only found out because my older daughter came home and told me something that had happened on campus that day.”

During her emotional testimony, Binder empathized with other parents and teachers listening.

“I want everyone to be safe,” she said. “As a mother to a child who has to protect other people from her child, I know firsthand the struggles. I know firsthand how it does feel trying to seek out help. Feeling alone. Feeling like a terrible parent.”

Binder called for schools to be more communicative so that parents of problematic children can know their students are disrupting class, or worse.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Angie Taylor of Washoe County, spoke after testimonies concluded. She thanked everyone, including the opposition, for broadening her view of the issue.

“We have to balance disproportionality, equity and commitment to all kids with a safe educational environment for staff and kids,” Taylor said. “Let’s talk about it, let’s work on it, and let’s fix it together.”