Use of restraints in schools continues to generate controversy throughout Minnesota. There may be a move toward some student resource officers returning to schools with the latest state legal opinion, but that remains to be seen.
At issue is a new state law that places limits as to how students can be physically restrained. The law change was part of the 2023 education bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz.
But how the law is interpreted has generated weeks of controversy, with many law enforcement agencies statewide removing student resource officers or SROS from schools.
Under the law, no Minnesota student can be held in a prone position. Nor can students be subjected to what is called “comprehensive restraint” on the head, neck and across most of the torso. The law does include exceptions for the safety and health of students and officers.
The change has support from many disability advocacy organizations and was the focus of a high-profile effort at the 2023 Minnesota Legislature. Advocates have worked for years to keep students with disabilities safe from restraints that can injure them. Prone restraint use against special education students has been outlawed for almost a decade. But there has been a strong push in recent years to expand that type of protection to all students, and to place a spotlight on the dangers restraints can create.
The new law also requires school districts to report incidents in which physical holds are used on students. Reporting of incidents starts in July 2024.
School districts can opt to hire SROs for law enforcement agencies in their school districts, or hire their own staff. Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools stopped hiring SROs a few years ago. But many districts opted to keep the posts until recently.
Law enforcement agencies have said the new law change overly restricts the types of physical holds that could be used on a student, and could put officers and others in a school at risk. Police and sheriff’s departments have removed SRO staff out of schools around the state, citing a lack of clarity with the law change. Eagan, New Hope, Apple Valley, Osseo and White Bear Lake were among the latest schools to lose their SROs.
Walz at one point said he was open to calling a special session to clarify the new law. Then he said that while he wants to find a solution, a special session isn’t needed.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has issued two legal opinions on the law, the most recent on September 20. He has stated that the law change doesn’t prevent officers from utilizing what he describes as a “reasonable” use of force. He is among those opining that the new law does provide exceptions in situations where a hold may be used to prevent injury or even death to others.
“My top concern continues to be that students and school staff be safe in schools and that law-enforcement officers can effectively play their part in keeping them safe,” Ellison said in a statement. “My original legal opinion last month addressed only the question of whether the recent amendments to school-discipline laws allow the use of prone restraints and other techniques in cases of imminent physical harm to self or others. Since then, I have been in conversation with a variety of stakeholders, including law enforcement, who have raised more questions in good faith. I have also seen misunderstandings of the original opinion and the law. I am issuing this supplemental legal opinion, which is consistent with the conclusions of the original opinion, in an effort to address those good-faith concerns and clarify those misunderstandings.”
The split on a special session has divided state lawmakers by party, with both Republican and DFLers holding news conferences for and against a special session. DFLers issued a statement calling out prone restraint as an unreasonable form of punishment. Republicans want the law repealed entirely.
The law’s passage also launched a series of questions from law enforcement, including the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. The associations and individual law enforcement agencies have questioned what their alternative are and have asked that there be clarification of the law.
A large group of teachers, parents and organizations that oppose police brutality held a news conference at the capitol in mid-September opposing a special session and asking that the new law stand.
As September ended, some law enforcement agencies were allowing their SROs to return to schools. That followed days of discussions between local government officials, state elected officials, Ellison’s office and law enforcement leaders.
One factor is the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association providing guidance that an SRO’s ability to enforce local laws takes priority over the new restraint rules. Walz has told law enforcement that the new law will be looked at in early 2024 for possible, longer-term changes.
It’s not know yet which police and sheriff’s departments will return SROs to schools, or whether that will be done on a more limited basis than before.
“The health and welfare of everyone in the schools will be at the heart of the discussions moving forward,” a statement from House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic said. “Our top priority is for students to learn and thrive in Minnesota schools, and to be able to do that, students, staff and teachers must have a safe environment.”
Republicans have disagreed, saying that hearings on a change should be taking place now and that clarification on what is and is not physical contact cannot wait.