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Protecting kids of all ages from teacher molestation is goal of proposed bill in Nebraska

When a Nebraska teacher or coach sexually molests a high school student, the perpetrator doesn’t always get jail time.

If the student is 16, the age of consent, prosecutors have few options.

An Omaha state senator wants to change that.

Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha introduced Legislative Bill 766 last week that would prohibit sexual assault of a minor by an authority figure, regardless of whether the student consented.

The law would apply to people in a position of trust and authority over a victim. Under the bill, that would include teachers, coaches, principals, counselors, guardians or foster parents, temporary caretakers and health care providers.

An authority figure who subjected a student younger than 19 to sexual penetration could then be charged with first-degree sexual assault.

If convicted, the authority figure could be imprisoned for one to 50 years.

“It’s an issue that seems to keep coming back over and over,” Lindstrom said. “Having young kids, and being someone that’s been around athletics, it just doesn’t sit well. If we can correct and do some things to protect kids, I’m all in.”

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The bill is one of several proposals being talked about in the Nebraska Legislature aimed at curbing educator sexual misconduct.

Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island said he plans to propose a bill that also would hold educators accountable, but take a different tack.

“It would set up crimes for sexual abuse of K-12 students regardless of age,” Quick said.

The bill is still in the works, but the severity of the penalty would depend on the type of conduct, including whether sexual penetration, contact or grooming occurred, he said.

The bill would also require Child Protective Services to share information with the Nebraska Department of Education when a call comes in alleging misconduct by an educator, he said.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, whose office investigates professional practices violations, has said he wants that sharing.

Quick said the sharing has to be done carefully and confidentially, so as not to hurt educators unnecessarily.

In December, The World-Herald published a story about a student who was groomed and abused by her math teacher at Davis Middle School. Another teacher, concerned over the way then-teacher Brian Robeson hugged and touched girls and the victim, had called CPS. The call did not trigger a police investigation. Robeson continued to abuse the girl for seven months until he was discovered by accident at the girl’s house in December 2015. He is in prison.

Emails, hugs, promises: Teen victim describes how OPS teacher groomed her for sexual abuse

Staff members reported concerns about the teacher's behavior with girls, but school officials never separated him and the student, or launched a formal investigation into his behavior. Despite that, a federal judge sided with OPS on a lawsuit alleging the school district violated the girl's constitutional rights to be free from sexual harassment under Title IX.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, meantime, said he will introduce a bill calling on school districts to draw up policies to clarify appropriate and inappropriate relationships and communication between teachers and students. Some Omaha metro area districts have already developed policies.

The bill would address grooming activities, the manipulative behaviors that perpetrators use to take advantage of students, he said.

He said his bill won’t come up with model language for the districts, but require them to address the issue.

Grooming is a difficult thing to try prohibiting by law, he said.

“It’s really hard in a criminal statute to define it in a way that doesn’t capture people who are doing things that are perfectly innocent,” he said.

The World-Herald has been running an occasional series on educator sexual misconduct.

Since the beginning of 2014, at least 56 Nebraska educators have been caught for sexual contact or inappropriate communication of a sexual nature with students, the paper reported.

Of those cases, 10 involved sex with victims 16 or older. In some of those 10, there were no criminal charges, but the State Education Department revoked the educators’ teaching certificates.

As of 2017, 22 states, including Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado, had laws making it a crime for a person of trust or authority to have sex with a child, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Those laws vary in penalties and the age range covered.

The laws reflect the notion that because coaches, teachers and other trusted adults have authority over a victim, the relationship is unbalanced, and there can’t be genuine consent to sex.

The age of consent, which varies by state, marks when teens are presumed mature enough to decide to have sex.

Nebraska law already defines sex with a child under 16 as statutory rape, deeming them too immature to consent.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine supports LB 766.

Kleine said the authority figure’s status should be taken into account, legally, to show “they’re not on equal footing” with the child, he said.

The law would make it harder for teachers to escape criminal consequences, he said.

“That’s the area we want to focus on, so we can charge them, and it’s not just ‘Well, hey, they were old enough, they could consent,’ ” he said.

John Palmtag prosecuted a 2017 Otoe County case in which a 27-year-old female teacher was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old male student.

She was convicted of misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

A change in law would give prosecutors and courts more direction in how to handle such cases, Palmtag said.

“This would make it easier to charge cases like this,” he said. “We wouldn’t have to use generic, broad statutes like contributing to the delinquency of a child.”


Meet the Nebraska state senators

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Military
Nebraska Guard gets most of the money needed to rebuild flood-damaged Camp Ashland

UPDATE: The Nebraska National Guard learned this week that it will receive full funding, totaling $62.3 million, to fully rebuild the Camp Ashland training site, according to a statement released Wednesday by the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac.

“That amount is a combination of new military construction funds to replace buildings that were completely destroyed with new, elevated buildings, as well as restoration and modernization of existing structures that sustained flood damage,” Bohac said in the statement.

He added a thank-you to Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, the Defense Department and the National Guard Bureau “for their commitment to bringing the Camp Ashland Training Site back to its pre-flood operating capacity.”


Thanks to a hefty Christmas gift from Washington, the Nebraska National Guard soon will be able to start rebuilding its flood-ravaged training site, Camp Ashland.

The Defense Department appropriations bill passed last month by Congress included $48.4 million for major reconstruction at the site. That’s enough to replace most of the flood-damaged buildings and fortify the levee that protects the camp from the adjacent Platte River.

Guard officials say that is plenty to get the job started, and they are expecting to receive most of the rest of the money before the end of the year.

“I am very thrilled about this appropriation,” said Col. Shane Martin, the Guard’s construction and facilities management officer. “I’m going to build (the buildings) bigger, and on stilts.”

And while the buildings will be bigger, there will be fewer buildings overall, so the total square footage will stay roughly the same, guard officials say.

Camp Ashland, 30 miles southwest of Omaha, is a regional training center used by as many as 100,000 National Guard, Army and Army Reserve members from Nebraska and nearby states. The Nebraska National Guard has used it for more than 100 years.

The 1,184-acre camp was inundated with water up to 8 feet deep during the March floods that swamped low-lying areas of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

First the Salt Creek, which runs along Camp Ashland’s southern boundary, overflowed its banks and filled the camp like a saucer. Over the next three days, the swollen Platte River ate away at the levee protecting the camp. Then the river ripped a gash near the levee’s north end and opened a fast-moving channel through the middle of the training base.

Camp Ashland’s low-lying buildings didn’t stand a chance. Every structure not already on stilts suffered damage, some of it catastrophic. The water overwhelmed floodgates constructed after a major flood in 2015 that caused $3.7 million worth of damage.

This time, floodwaters rose 2 to 4 feet higher.

The ruined buildings included both classrooms and barracks, and the dining hall was badly damaged. All training was stopped at the camp for two months, and since then it has been largely limited to daytime drills. Soldier training at Camp Ashland dropped almost 80% from 2018 to 2019.

“We don’t have much capacity to house people,” Martin said, though some training has moved to other National Guard sites in Mead and Hastings.

Soon after the flooding, the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia, sent Nebraska about $4 million in emergency funds to clean up the worst of the damage.

NEBRASKA NATIONAL GUARD 

Barracks, storage buildings and classrooms at inundated Camp Ashland on March 17.

That allowed Martin to hire contractors to fill the gaping hole in the levee, tear out sodden drywall and insulation in the flooded buildings, and clean up massive amounts of silt, trash and debris left behind when the floodwaters receded.

“The grounds are all looking pretty good,” he said. “We’re patched. Everything is operational.”

But to fully restore Camp Ashland, Martin said he needs $62.3 million. That includes:

  • $35 million to replace existing administrative offices, classrooms and barracks with seven new buildings, all built on stilt pilings at least 7 feet off the ground.
  • $8.5 million to extend to the north a 7-foot concrete bulkhead that currently runs inside the Platte River levee on the southern part of the camp.
  • $4.9 million for the design of those two projects.
  • $8.1 million to repair existing buildings and infrastructure, including $1 million for road repair, $2 million for grading and repairing trails and $3 million for land clearance and grading.
  • $3.6 million for a new maintenance building and a new gym.
  • $2.2 million to replace furniture and equipment.

The $48 million in federal military construction funds — secured through the efforts of Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer and Reps. Don Bacon and Jeff Fortenberry — covers the first three items on the list. Martin said he expects construction contracts to go out for bids in late summer or early fall 2020, with work to last about 18 months.

On that timeline, the camp could operate again at full capacity in early 2022.

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Martin said he is “very, very hopeful” to receive an additional $11.7 million this year to cover the fourth and fifth items on the list — the road, trail and building repair, plus gym and maintenance building — through a separate fund for “sustainment and restoration” of National Guard facilities.

“It sounds like it’s going to be coming to us,” he said. “But we have not seen these funds.”

That would leave only the furniture and equipment unfunded. They won’t be needed until most of the other work is completed, anyway.

“I’ll be fighting for that furniture money in the next fiscal year,” Martin said.

The National Guard has fended off arguments that it should abandon the site. But Martin said not only is it conveniently located — near Interstate 80, halfway between Nebraska’s two major population centers — the Guard also has both a financial and historical investment in the property.

He pointed to Memorial Hall, the auditorium and meeting hall that is Camp Ashland’s signature building. In the 1920s, Nebraska soldiers pitched in to build it. It was dedicated in 1929 and suffered $400,000 worth of damage in last year’s flood, the first time waters climbed high enough to enter the structure.

“We have extreme history here,” he said. “It’s an amazing possibility for us to put Camp Ashland back the way it was.”

Camp Ashland begins to recover after flood

Plus
Projected drop in prison overcrowding never happened, forcing Nebraska to look for new answers

LINCOLN — Five years ago, state lawmakers passed a series of sentencing reforms designed to reduce Nebraska’s chronic prison overcrowding.

The reforms, signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts, were hailed as a way to reduce overcrowding and avoid spending $300 million on new prisons, by directing low-level offenders into lower-cost probation programs rather than expensive prison cells.

But instead of inmate numbers going down by about 1,000, they’ve gone up, reaching new record levels. That increase has forced a renewed call to either build new prisons or adopt more reforms to keep offenders from going to prison, or do both.

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“I wouldn’t call LB 605 a failure — things would be an awful lot worse at the Department of Corrections if it hadn’t passed — but we need to take other steps if we’re going to reduce overcrowding,” said State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a leading senator on prison issues.

Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts, agreed, but said adopting sentencing reforms, like eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, is not the answer.

“The governor is focused on expanding prison capacity to protect public safety,” Gage said.

He did not specify whether that translates into new proposals for prison construction.

Nebraska prisons, as of Jan. 3, held 5,541 inmates, about 2,000 more than they were designed to hold. And those numbers do not include 97 inmates being housed in county jails because of the lack of space. Nebraska’s prison overcrowding, 157% of capacity, ranks second-worst in the nation, trailing only Alabama, a state that is facing federal intervention to reduce crowding.

Nebraska faces a deadline of sorts in July when, by state law, the governor must declare an “overcrowding emergency” if the state’s prison population exceeds 140% of capacity. That’s a benchmark that state officials say can’t be met. The emergency would require the parole board to re-review inmates for parole, and release them, unless they’re still deemed a threat to society. It is unclear how many, if any, would be released.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Nebraska has sued the state over the overcrowding, maintaining that it has led to inadequate health care and mental health services. Among their claims: A female inmate was denied cancer treatment for five months, and a male inmate died of suicide after not getting requested psychiatric care.

State lawyers have contested the ACLU’s claims and say the prison system is addressing any problems.

Inmates and families of inmates say that conditions inside state prisons are getting worse not only because of overcrowding, but also because family visits, social clubs and recreation programs have been canceled because of a shortage of prison staff.

Each night, about 130 inmates sleep on plastic cots spread across the floors at the State Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, which holds about three times as many inmates as the 160 it was designed to house. In several cells designed to hold two prisoners, four inmates cram together with a gap of only 3 feet between bunks.

“I can’t imagine sharing that kind of space for 16 to 21 hours a day,” said Andrea Fordd of the group Inmate Lives Matter. “I thought it would get better, but it’s gone the other way unfortunately.”

Two things happened that doomed the projections made by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, a national think tank that Nebraska leaders brought in to help craft a plan to relieve overcrowding without breaking the budget.

$33 million plan offers 'road map' of how Nebraska can cut prison population, costs

First, state lawmakers didn’t adopt all the “justice reinvestment” sentencing reforms recommended by the Justice Center, which has helped more than 30 states craft plans to reduce spending on prisons.

About a dozen supposedly nonviolent crimes that had been targeted for sentence reductions were not reduced after prosecutors complained. As a result, crimes including burglary, distribution of controlled substances, possession of a stolen firearm and motor vehicle homicide involving drunken driving retained the maximum prison sentence of 20 years. The center had recommended four-year maximums, with two years’ post-release supervision.

“We did some of it, but we didn’t do enough,” said former State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, a key lawmaker in bringing CSG to the state. Reforming or lowering sentences, he said, always faces stiff opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors.

Secondly, while the state saw a 3.5% drop in the overall crime rate from 2015-18, felony criminal charges have risen by 26% statewide since LB 605 was passed. Most of that increase has come in Omaha, which has seen felony arrests rise by 37% over the past four years.

The end result is that about 2,700 more felons — enough to fill the state’s largest prison nearly three times — have entered the system.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who participated in crafting the justice reinvestment reforms in 2014-15, said that CSG probably didn’t anticipate such an increase in felonies.

Ironically, the number of homicides and violent felonies is on the decline in Omaha. But Kleine said there’s still a lot of other crime taking place.

“And the people who are committing those are the people who have worked their way into getting a prison sentence,” he said.

Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley said that every day, he sees a list of felony arrests and the list includes nonviolent crimes like possession of a controlled substance, shoplifting and abuse of a vulnerable adult. Riley, who also participated on justice reinvestment committees, said sentencing reforms didn’t go far enough in allowing the State Parole Board to decide which inmates could safely be released early or not.

“There were some good intentions there, but (LB 605) was just not remotely going to solve the problem,” Riley said. “It was a Band-Aid on a laceration the size of your thigh.”

Some good things happened thanks to passage of the bill.

Many low-level felonies came with a presumption that offenders would be sent to lower-cost probation supervision rather than prison, which can cost about 10 times more. As a result, the state probation office is now supervising 4,408 offenders. That exceeds the number projected by CSG by about 1,500 inmates.

Probation is also overseeing more than 1,000 offenders ordered to serve “post-release supervision,” which was created under LB 605. It was a public safety effort to better transition inmates back into society, and prevent new crimes and a return to prison.

And the number of “problem solving courts” that seek to reform drug abusers, veterans and other felons through intensive probation conditions, drug tests and supervision by a judge has increased to 31 across the state, handling about 1,300 offenders a year.

So if LB 605 hasn’t worked, what’s the state to do to reduce prison overcrowding?

The Omaha police union has said that the state needs to build more prisons, saying that Nebraska needs to build at least 700 new beds. Even five years ago, some state prosecutors were saying the state just needed to build more prisons.

“I think we probably all said (LB 605) wasn’t going to work,” said Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon.

Nearly 800 inmates sign petition of complaint about changes, conditions at State Penitentiary

At least 780 inmates of the 1,400 housed at the State Penitentiary complained in a petition about the loss of social clubs and evening recreational activities, inadequate "sack" breakfasts, loss of post-work showers by shop employees, and other decisions they called "arbitrary and capricious" made as part of recently switching the facility to 12-hour shifts for workers.

Kleine, the Douglas County prosecutor, said that the people who deserve to be in prison are being sent to prison, and if more beds are needed, the state needs to step up and build them.

Riley, the public defender, said that lawmakers ought to enact more sentencing reforms that allow inmates who behave and comply with rehabilitation programs to be released sooner on parole supervision. Right now, he and others say, many inmates are waiting too long to become parole-eligible, or to complete rehab programs in prison needed to become eligible.

Lathrop, who heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and has led more than one probe into the problems in state prisons, said a combination of some sentencing reforms and construction of new prisons is needed.

Lathrop introduced a bill Friday to begin planning for a new, 300-bed prison in Omaha. In a presentation to fellow lawmakers this fall, he pointed out that the most recent master plan by state corrections called for about 1,100 new prison beds to be built by now, with another 1,100 under construction. Instead, 260 have been built, with 548 in the process of being built.

“We have a (prison) capacity issue, clearly,” Lathrop said.

An Alabama lawmaker who worked with CSG to craft a plan to reduce prison overcrowding there said that CSG’s efforts set that state in “the right direction” to reduce crowding, even though it, like Nebraska, fell short of getting the job done.

“They probably wanted us to go a little bit further politically than we wanted to go,” said Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward. “The real issue is that nobody wants to spend money on prisons.”

Notable crime news of 2019