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Minn. law enforcement associations: School resource officer law needs clarity

Minnesota law enforcement associations are asking for a special legislative session on the SRO law that changed the “reasonable force standard” in schools


By Mara H. Gottfried
Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Interpretations of changes to Minnesota law about school resource officers continue to vary: The state police association’s attorney said Wednesday the law creates separate standards for use-of-force for SROs vs. patrol officers, while the head of the Minnesota House of Representatives said there’s one standard for all peace officers.

State law enforcement associations underscored their calls Wednesday for a special legislative session on the SRO law. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she’ll continue working with people who have concerns, though she doesn’t think a special session is necessary because she said state law is clear about reasonable force for officers.

Only the governor can call a special session, and Gov. Tim Walz told Minnesota Public Radio News Friday that he wouldn’t call one for now. Imran Ali, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA) general counsel, said he spoke with the governor’s office Tuesday and he “was assured that the governor is still open to calling a special session.”

Walz’s office told the Pioneer Press Wednesday that the governor will continue to meet with stakeholders and work to provide clarity, and that he’s grateful the majority of school districts in the state have continued SRO programs.

Thirty-three law enforcement agencies had stopped their SRO programs as of Wednesday, according to MPPOA. The city of Woodbury notified South Washington County Schools Friday that the City Council decided to suspend SRO services at East Ridge and Woodbury high schools, according to the school district.

Changes to law

Since 2015, state law has said school district staff is prohibited from using prone restraint as an emergency restraint for students with disabilities, and physical holding of such students can only happen in emergencies.

During this year’s legislative session, a bill passed and Walz signed it into state law that says “an employee or agent of a district, including a school resource officer, security personnel, or police officer contracted with a district, shall not use prone restraint,” meaning to put someone in a face-down position.

Also added was the following language: “An employee or agent of a district, including a school resource officer, security personnel, or police officer contracted with a district, shall not inflict any form of physical holding that restricts or impairs a pupil’s ability to breathe; restricts or impairs a pupil’s ability to communicate distress; places pressure or weight on a pupil’s head, throat, neck, chest, lungs, sternum, diaphragm, back, or abdomen; or results in straddling a pupil’s torso.”

Hortman emphasized that nothing in the new law prevents the use of “reasonable force.”

The law changed the “reasonable force standard” in schools. It previously said a school employee, school bus driver or other agent of a district “may use reasonable force when it is necessary … to restrain a student or prevent bodily harm or death to another.” The first “or” was removed to say they could use reasonable force when necessary “to restrain a student to prevent bodily harm or death to the student or to another.”

Jeff Potts, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association executive director, said they interpret that to mean if there’s a student who is being unruly, a school resource officer could not restrain him or her “until that split second when it becomes a threat or it is to prevent bodily harm or death.”

It also means a SRO couldn’t hold a student by the arm, because that’s a form of restraint, unless the student posed a risk of bodily harm or death, Potts said.

Bodily harm is defined by state law as “any impairment of physical condition,” pointed out Hortman, who is also an attorney.

Patrol officers aren’t subject to the law as SROs are, so they could respond to a school and restrain a student by the arm, Potts said of his understanding.

“Quite simply, the cops shouldn’t have to call the cops,” Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany said of SROs having to call on patrol officers to respond. “Especially when the (SROs) calling the (patrol officers) already have the best likelihood and connection with our youth to defuse or manage these situations.”

Chokeholds aren’t at issue because they were banned for all officers in legislation passed in 2020, Potts said.

Chiefs who kept SROs still concerned

Hortman wrote to Brooklyn Park and Champlin police chiefs and city managers, both areas she represents, on Tuesday after she met with them at the end of August.

“There is one and only one standard for use of force by peace officers regardless of their role: State law provides standards for the authorized use of force for public officers at 609.06, subd. 1,” she wrote, referring to the law about when officers can use force.

Hortman concluded the letter by writing, “Based on the clarity of Minnesota law when viewed in totality, it is my hope that we can get SROs back in schools as soon as possible.”

Champlin Police Chief Glen Schneider said he took the advice of the city’s attorney into consideration when he previously decided to pull the department’s one SRO. He said Wednesday he hasn’t changed his mind.

Brooklyn Park Chief Mark Bruley has not taken his SROs out of schools but he said it’s been with “a lot of consternation” for him. “… I don’t know a police chief that has put a SRO back in school that is comfortable with this law.” He said they’ve given Brooklyn Park SROs special orders, telling them they’re there to protect children from the most serious situations, such as an active shooter.

If there’s not a special session and clarity to the law, Bruley said it’s likely he’ll have to pause the SRO program.

“They’ve been involved in numerous conflicts where they don’t know what to do” to intervene without being in violation of the law, he said.

New Brighton has also kept its SROs. Public Safety Director Tony Paetznick said he “balanced the risks out and thought it would be better that our officers remained on duty in the schools, knowing that the rules of engagement have changed somewhat.”

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