State Sen. Steve Lathrop

State Sen. Steve Lathrop works during the 2019 Legislature at the Capitol. 

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Lisa Albers doesn't know if a stronger school policy would have prevented her child from being groomed by a substitute teacher.

Future policies, the Grand Island Public Schools board member said, defining what interactions between students and teachers are appropriate — as well as what the consequences are for breaching that trust — will prevent future students from being violated.

Under a bill (LB1080) from Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, all public and private schools in Nebraska would be required to adopt policies outlining appropriate conduct between employees and students.

The policy would also need to include a statement prohibiting school employees from engaging in sexual acts with current students or those who have graduated or left school in the past year.

"The vast majority of teachers would never engage in the type of behaviors this bill would prohibit," Lathrop told the Legislature's Education Committee on Tuesday.

But, because of the actions of a "small group of individuals," Lathrop said it was up to the Legislature to ensure every school is ready to "prevent, protect and report" inappropriate behaviors between teachers and students such as grooming when they take place.

Lathrop said the bill asks schools to draft policies that would prevent adults from building a friendship or relationship with a child in order to exploit them for sex, also known as grooming.

Albers said the substitute teacher, twice her child's age, groomed her child through confiding personal information through texts and other communications and even providing alcohol.

The teacher manipulated Albers' child into going to a friend's house where they would be alone two weeks after high school graduation, she said. The inappropriate relationship was only discovered after Albers found text messages between the two.

"I knew something didn't look right," she said. "There was a reason I was looking at (the) phone. It was just too little, too late."

Once alerted, Grand Island Public Schools took immediate action, Albers said, notifying the teacher they would no longer be teaching in the district, but it took two years for the state to launch an investigation.

Later, law enforcement determined there had been no crime — the child was over the age 16, which is the age of consent in Nebraska.

Several bills scheduled to go before the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 20 would create criminal offenses for teachers who engage in sexual relationships with students.

Lathrop said his bill would require school districts to create policies for their employees in order to clearly delineate what is appropriate and what's not, which would be a step in that direction.

Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said the statewide teachers union was in favor of strengthening policies and penalties "for educators who take advantage of their position to coerce students ... into a sexual relationship."

"There is no acceptable reason that an educator at a PK-12 school district should be in a sexual relationship with a student, regardless of the age of the student," Fennell said.

NSEA also supports schools defining the acceptable means of communication between teachers and students, which Fennell said could include limiting contact on social media.

Clearly defined policies outlining the potential consequences of grooming or engaging in sexual relationships with children, could prevent those incidents from occurring, said Brian Halstead, deputy commissioner at the Nebraska Department of Education.

Individuals who engage in sexual relationships with students have their teaching licenses revoked, which means they can no longer teach in Nebraska.

NDE also forwards the information to a national teacher clearinghouse that shares it with education departments in other states.

Other school groups, including the Nebraska Association of School Boards and the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, also backed Lathrop's proposal Tuesday.

Albers urged the Education Committee to send Lathrop's bill to the floor for debate by the whole Legislature. The committee did not take action Tuesday.

She said her child is still suffering "the aftermath of this abuse by this teacher."

"This event has had life-altering affects," Albers said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

This article originally ran on journalstar.com.

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