KEARNEY — Staff training and programming at both Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers is lacking, several people testified Thursday in Kearney.
“I hear this a lot. After initial training staff is sent off on their own and they either have to sink or swim, and they get little or no support from co-workers or supervisors,” said Robin Smith, a state employee union representative at YRTC-Kearney. “It’s not just something you learn in a couple weeks.”
Smith was one of several people to testify Thursday in Kearney before the Nebraska Health and Human Services Committee for a fact-finding meeting about the two facilities. Kearney Sen. John Lowe has introduced two legislative resolutions — LR103 and LR200 — addressing staffing issues and the programming being offered at the YRTCs in Kearney and Geneva. The Kearney Hub will follow up with Lowe to find out what happens next at both facilities.
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Delinda Mohrmann echoed Smith about the lack of training and programming at Geneva. She worked there in the 1990s, quit to raise a family, returning in 2017, only to quit 1 ½ years because she “couldn’t handle it.”
“There needs to be training,” she said.
Oftentimes Mohrmann said someone employed less than 90 days would provide training to new staff.
“We had people there 40 days that were training new employees,” she said. “You cannot train them that way, and it’s chaos. Nobody knows the rules, nobody knows what the rules are supposed to be, so none of them are consistently enforced. The youth don’t know them and it’s run wild.
“The youth have no clue what to do, so they’re frustrated and they act out,” Mohrmann added. “It results in attacks on other youth and staff.”
Smith said YRTC has been able to hire some staff, but they can’t retain them. About 40 percent of the people hired are for youth security specialists who have direct contact with the teens. Several leave within the first year, and many leave within the first few months.
“The pay is low, and the mandatory overtime has especially hit the night shift who have to cover for morning staff who call in sick,” said Smith who works in the warehouse at YRTC and is the NAPE union representative.
Verbal abuse and the threat of physical assault by the youths also are issues, said Smith, who started working at YRTC in 1994 when it was still under the control of the state Department of Corrections. Most recently staff found two pipe wrenches teens had hidden, according to testimony.
“There is also a lot of sexual harassment from these young men,” Smith continued.
Paul Schulte, vice president of the Nebraska State Education Association, spoke on behalf of the YRTC teachers. He said poor communication, lack of pay, training and safety are teachers’ biggest concerns.
On the first day of school in August Geneva teachers were told an hour into their day the teenage females would be moved to the Kearney campus. Eventually, 20 females were transferred.
Geneva teachers started being transported to Kearney to teach the girls. But when they arrived, Schulte said, they didn’t receive any training about Kearney’s campus and were expected to adapt to Kearney’s program without being trained.
Geneva teachers teach from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. then they’re transported back to Geneva.
In addition to the long day, Schulte said the reduction of class time is a concern for teachers required by law to have 1,080 hours of instruction.
The YRTCs also need to change their teacher hiring process, which doesn’t start until May or June, said Schulte, a 21-year educator. Most teachers are hired in January, February and March, he said, but by the time YRTC starts their process most teachers already have signed contracts for the upcoming school year.
“When they’re waiting until May and June that’s waiting really late to get quality candidates,” said Schulte, a Pleasanton native who’s father was a security officer at YRTC for years. “These are some of the most critical students in our state that need high-quality educators in those classrooms.”