Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
As Minnesota students return to school this week, many may notice the absence of a familiar face. In response to new state rules, fewer school resource officers (SROs) will be walking the hallways getting to know kids while keeping them safe. A growing number of law enforcement agencies have pulled sworn SROs from schools because, leaders say, statewide restrictions on the use of physical holds could interfere with officers' ability to do their jobs.
The concern is legitimate. Provisions added during the 2023 legislative session need more clarity. The wording as it stands could be interpreted to mean that virtually any kind of student restraint is illegal. Officers could be held liable, civilly or even criminally, even if a situation reasonably demanded that an officer intervene physically with a student.
The provision was approved as part of a sweeping education bill in May. Several law enforcement organizations are concerned that it would force school officers to call for backup from off-campus patrols rather than resolve problems quickly. As of late last week, at least 10 Minnesota law enforcement agencies said they had pulled officers from schools.
In response, on Wednesday, a group of GOP lawmakers joined officers in calling on DFL Gov. Tim Walz to convene a special session to clarify or repeal the changed law.
"In emergency situations, minutes matter. Seconds matter," said Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, echoing concerns metro area superintendents discussed recently with an editorial writer.
The portion of the law that was changed limits district employees or agents — including SROs — from placing students into certain types of holds. It specifically prohibits putting a student face down on the ground, or putting "pressure or weight on a pupil's head, throat, neck, chest, lungs, sternum, diaphragm, back, or abdomen ... ." The law limits the use of reasonable force to situations where students are posing a risk of bodily harm or death to themselves or someone else.
Anoka-Hennepin, the largest school system in the state, said that five of the six law enforcement agencies operating in the district have suspended their SRO school presence, leaving only one of 12 officers in its schools. Maplewood, Roseville, Moorhead and the Anoka County Sheriffs' office are among those who have paused or suspended SRO service.
Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt said she will remove the SRO officer from Rockford High School because of the uncertainty. "It is my hope that we can continue to navigate the needs and concerns of community members. Unfortunately, the ambiguous limitations imposed this year are incompatible with sworn duties of a licensed peace officer," she said. "[W]hen the need to respond to a serious incident arises, [officers] need to know that they will not be held liable for appropriately fulfilling that duty."
Meanwhile, the state's second- and third-largest districts — St. Paul and Minneapolis — ended their SRO programs with local police departments following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. And some other districts will retain their SROs; both the Duluth and Rochester police departments say they'll continue their SRO programs this fall. They are keeping them, presumably, in light of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison's interpretation of the new statute.
In a statement, Ellison wrote that the new law does not bar officers from "reasonable" uses of force. Walz wrote in a statement of his own that his administration will work with school leaders and law enforcement agencies "to ensure they have the guidance and resources they need to do their jobs effectively."
"We are discouraged that such a significant law that impacts the safety of our children was imposed without any stakeholder input," Minnesota Sheriffs' Association Executive Director James Stuart said. "However, we remain optimistic that we can all work together to resolve the many concerns that the [oversight] has created."
The Star Tribune Editorial Board hopes that optimism will prove to be well placed. State officials should work energetically with law enforcement and school districts to develop some kind of clarification or assurance long before the Legislature reconvenes in January. With most schools opening on Tuesday, districts that want SROs in their buildings should have them back in school as soon as possible.
Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune CEO and Publisher Steve Grove serves as an adviser to the board.