by Deborah Shanahan | University of Nebraska Public Policy Center
When Jenn Heetderks joined the new University of Nebraska Public Policy Center in 1998 as a fresh graduate to help the inaugural director set up the office, it had three full-time employees.
Now, as the center celebrates its 25th anniversary, it employs more than 35. The center collaborates with 119 faculty from 26 colleges and 49 departments across all University of Nebraska campuses to help dozens of partners find real-world, research-backed solutions to an array of challenges, including disaster recovery, behavioral health, public health, suicide prevention and school safety.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary with partners and the public, the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, a center focused on using data-focused research to positively impact policy and practice, is planning an open house 3-6 p.m. Oct. 26 at 215 Centennial Mall South, Suite 401.
The center’s projects span all three branches of government, every Nebraska county, multiple states and other countries. Its more than 70 active projects bring in over $3.7 million a year.
“Successfully completing our grants and contracts is essential for the PPC. The PPC is funded solely by grants and contracts,” said Heetderks, whose role now is grants and contracts specialist. “We have always strived to do excellent work and build great relationships with our clients. We’ve worked hard over the years to maintain those great relationships and have been fortunate to have a lot of repeat business as we’re known as being a fair, impartial center that gets the job done, and done well.”
Mario Scalora, director since 2016, provides threat assessment expertise on a national stage by consulting with U.S. Capitol Police and other federal agencies, including for high-profile events like presidential inaugurations. The psychology professor’s award-winning research focuses on warning signs of targeted violence in workplaces, schools, and government agencies.
At the same time, schools across Nebraska regularly employ the center to help staff develop emergency operations plans.
“Cybersecurity threats are very real and are happening every day,” said Kurt Mantonya, a research manager at the center. “Our tabletop exercise on cybersecurity challenges school administrators, teachers, staff, network officials and others to think about the technological security of their systems and take steps to make these systems more hacker-proof. Using real-world examples and thought-provoking scenarios, we are helping Nebraska schools become more resilient to online threats.”
When then-University President Dennis Smith won approval of a University of Nebraska Public Policy Center from the Board of Regents in January 1998, a news report at the time said his vision was to offer the university’s expertise in quality, unbiased research at all four campuses to policy makers at all levels of government.
The founding director (now emeritus director) was Alan Tomkins, a professor trained in law and psychology. Scalora, when announcing Tomkin’s departure for the National Science Foundation, praised his “role in developing a self-sustaining multidisciplinary university research center with such a broad impact.”
Heetderks said the center’s portfolio of projects taken on each year has grown substantially since Scalora was hired. One early project of the center involved researching implementation of the now familiar telephone number 211 to lead people to health and human service information. More recently, the center assisted with planning the implementation of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, launched in July 2022. The center will be monitoring and collecting data on the number and type of calls to make data-driven recommendations for the future.
The center received its first major federal grant in September 2002, Heetderks said. The “Nebhands” project, funded by the U.S. Department of Health &Human Services Capital Compassion Fund, had the goal of strengthening community and faith-based organizations interested in providing services in mental health, substance abuse and addiction. The grant led to the hiring of several full-time staff, including Denise Bulling, now the center’s research director, who has led many of the highest profile projects.
The center has marked 20 years of continuous funding for Disaster Behavioral Health planning and response in partnership with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Among other things, the funding built capacity for federal crisis counseling programs after a 2004 tornado, 2014 and 2019 floods and COVID-19.
The center helps its partners write applications for, implement, monitor and evaluate grants, often assisting with training, stakeholder involvement and documentation of results. The center gets a portion of each grant for its work.
“We work with mental health, school, and court systems to ensure that expansion of services is informed by and consistent with best practices for service delivery,” said Stacey Hoffman, a senior research manager.
Some of the center’s impacts by the numbers include:
The Public Policy Center’s creation and management of the “Building a Suicide-Safe School Community” online course for Nebraska schools has resulted in more than 31,000 educators and staff completing the training during the 2020-21 school year and 6,213 completing it during 2021-22. The course is continuing this school year.
A revised suicide prevention guide for parents has been downloaded 1,264 times and a resource guide for schools has been downloaded 7,491 times. A handbook for developing school suicide policies has been downloaded 166 times. All three were developed in collaboration with the Nebraska Department of Education. The project’s social media presence included 413 posts across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts with more than 39,000 impressions from more than 11,000 users.
As a result of a four-year federal grant, 1,250 Nebraska educators and community partners will be trained in the evidence-based intervention of Psychological First Aid for Schools, designed to identify students with mental health issues, to promote mental health and to de-escalate crises. The project is a partnership of the Public Policy Center, the Nebraska Department of Education and regional behavioral health authorities.
Scalora and Bulling, in an ongoing project, have trained more than 1,800 individuals in K-12 school team threat assessment. This training, in partnership with the Nebraska Department of Education and the Educational Service Units Coordinating Council, has so far involved 244 public school districts and 110 non-public schools.
“The PPC doesn’t do the work that it does without various partners, including government agencies, non-profits, and community organizations, to conduct research, provide expertise, and develop evidence-based solutions to address these challenges,” said Quinn Lewandowski, a research manager at the center.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary with those partners and the public, the Public Policy Center is planning an open house with refreshments on Oct. 26 from 3-6 p.m. at 215 Centennial Mall South, Suite 401.