KEARNEY — Kearney law enforcement will be taking the skills they use on the street to teach staff members at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center how to protect themselves.
Police will teach staff how to use other techniques — such as talking or giving teens other choices — before the situation reaches a level where physical force is needed. It’s a technique law enforcement across the country have been utilizing.
“This is a good proactive step that we can take to try and right the ship out there,” said Kearney Police Chief Bryan Waugh.
Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, announced Wednesday a partnership between YRTC, Kearney and Buffalo County law enforcement to amplify safety and security for staff and teens at the facility. Officers also will help YRTC with the security and transportation of high-risk teens.
Smith said not all of the teens housed at YRTC belong there, nor is staff equipped to handle them. Some are too violent and too difficult to reach without intense supervision and counseling, she said, and may need a different, more appropriate placement.
But Robin Smith, a longtime YRTC employee who works in the warehouse, said staff already are trained on self-defense and de-escalation techniques.
“HHS is just ‘window-dressing’ the situation. To have the police come in and give us extra training is embarrassing,” said Robin Smith, who is also YRTC’s Nebraska Association of Public Employees union representative.
Armed with a radio and a set of keys, YRTC staff members have said they feel defenseless against some high-risk teens. Waugh said police training will teach staff techniques such as improvising something in the room to protect themselves or assessing a run, hide, fight scenario.
Related: 10 steps DHHS plans to take at YRTC
“This will correlate a lot with how we talk with teachers and staff at our schools on protecting themselves, protecting the students and using whatever means necessary to do what needs to be done,” Waugh said.
The decision for police to train YRTC staff is a first since DHHS took over the facility’s operation in 1997. At times in the past Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller said local law officers have struggled to receive timely information from YRTC, mainly when it comes to escapees.
“I think she’s (Dannette Smith) got some good plans on how to improve the safety up there,” Miller said. “We need to know immediately when there’s an escape and immediately when there’s an incident like last Friday. That call needs to come in a lot quicker, and they (staff) need to know it’s OK to call us.”
Kearney and Buffalo County officials have had three meetings with Smith since Friday’s assault and disturbance at YRTC where two staff members were injured, one who was hospitalized overnight.
Local law enforcement will meet next week with YRTC officials to develop an emergency response plan, Waugh said, which comes down to communication.
“We want to make sure when we get there staff understands what we need and we understand what they’re going through,” he said.
As part of their record system police already have readily available maps in their cruisers of the YRTC property and buildings to help them navigate the campus. Law enforcement won’t be involved in YRTC’s policy making when it comes to safety and security.
“We’ve got procedures and response protocol in place for other similar builidings (in Kearney) and we’re going to try and adopt the same thing with YRTC,” Waugh said. “I don’t want to see anybody get hurt out there. If we can help out, we’re going to do it.”
Buffalo County Attorney Shawn Eatherton has been involved in discussions about improving YRTC for years. He’s encouraged by Dannette Smith’s honesty, ideas for the direction of the facility and the law enforcement partnership.
“It’s what we’ve been asking for for a long time. If we can get the youth with higher needs and criminal behavior out of there and get some things under control, that’s what we’ve been asking for. That’s what’s best for those youth, for all of the other young men and women and for the staff.
Until Dannette Smith, neither Eatherton nor Miller had ever met with a DHHS director in person.
“She’s willing to sit down at the table. She wants suggestions from all parties, and she’s acting on those things. She’s listening,” Eatherton said. “She’s certainly shown the most action in a very short amount of time.”
“It is refreshing. I look forward to this partnership with all of them,” Miller added.
Robin Smith said the biggest problem at YRTC isn’t security, it’s the current treatment program — Phase.
The incentive-based program scores teens daily on their compliance with the program, interactions with their peers and staff members. Smith said staff members have told him it’s ineffective and doesn’t teach teens any kind of accountability or responsibility, rather it allows poor behavior by being too lenient.