Confusion continues to swirl around a new law that restricts the ways school resource officers in Minnesota are allowed to restrain students, as the first month of the new academic year wraps up around the state.
Gov. Tim Walz, DFL legislative leaders and representatives of key law enforcement groups all said in prepared statements Thursday that a meeting on the issue the night before brought progress in resolving issues around a recent law change that has led to SROs being removed from schools. On Wednesday, the Attorney General's Office had sought to clarify the language and usher officers back on school campuses.
Minnesota Republicans and metro-area law enforcement officials have repeatedly called for a special session to amend the new provisions, which were included in the sweeping education bill Walz signed in May.
While the governor has signaled his openness to calling a special session in order to alter the law, some DFLers and education advocates have pushed back, saying the restrictions are essential in ensuring student safety.
Here are some common questions about the law:
What is a school resource officer? And what do they do?
Minnesota school districts contract with local law enforcement agencies to place police officers and sheriff's deputies in schools. School resource officers are typically charged with providing classroom lessons on topics such as conflict resolution and drug use prevention and enforcing state and city laws on school campuses, but not district disciplinary policies. Those officers and deputies are usually placed in middle and high schools, though they'll sometimes teach lessons to fifth-grade classes on elementary campuses.
The Anoka-Hennepin School District's previous contract with the Anoka Sheriff's Office, for example, required deputies assigned to its campuses to establish relationships with students and staff and coordinate investigations of school-based crimes with the district and sheriff's office. These agreements also typically come with a price tag. During the 2020-21 school year, Anoka-Hennepin paid the Anoka County Sheriff's Office about $104,000.
What changed in the law?
The substitution of one two-letter word for another in state law has led most of Minnesota's police chiefs, county attorneys and sheriffs to interpret the new statute as preventing them from restraining students unless those students pose a physical threat.
Previously, the statute said an "agent of the district" — which includes law enforcement officials placed in schools under contract with a district — "may use reasonable force when it is necessary under the circumstances to restrain a student or prevent bodily harm or death to another."
The education budget bill took the "or" after student, and turned it into a "to." Police chiefs, county attorneys and insurers have interpreted that change to mean that officers stationed in schools may only restrain students if they're about to inflict harm on themselves or others.
"An SRO cannot restrain a student until that split second when it becomes a threat or it is to prevent bodily harm or death," Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts said during a news conference in mid-September.
Over the last few weeks, police chiefs and county attorneys have pointed to the two-word change as the primary source of confusion over when they're allowed to intervene when students break the law but don't pose a physical threat. Officers have reported not knowing how to handle trespassers or vandals on school campuses.
As Potts gestured to a group of officers that had been pulled from schools in the days leading up to the news conference, he said the two-word tweak in state law was the linchpin for the events of the last few weeks.
"If that 'or' were still in the statute, I think they'd be back in schools," Potts said.
Imran Ali, legal counsel for the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said police departments are also upset because the law effectively creates two tiers of law enforcement officers working within the same department — those bound by the new rules and those who aren't — and increasing liability for SROs.
"SROs will now be forced to react to situations in ways that are contrary to their training and department policy, leading to unsafe situations for students, staff, and the SROs themselves," Ali said. "SROs also face increased risk of civil and criminal liability because of the uncertainty in the law."
Why was the change proposed?
Some student education activists and a large group of DFL legislators have said the law change adds needed protections for students and is clear the way it is.The law restricts the use of prone restraints, or "any form of physical holding that restricts or impairs a pupil's ability to breathe or ... communicate distress."
Advocates note the ban on prone restraints brings the new law in line with restrictions the Legislature previously placed on the way school staff may restrain students enrolled in special education programs.
"I think it's just a matter of making sure all of the adults in our schools have the tools they need to make them safe and successful places," said DFL Rep. Cheryl Youakim, who chairs the House Education Finance Committee.
Are there other legal interpretations of the change?
Attorney General Keith Ellison weighed in with an advisory opinion in late August and an updated version on Wednesday. He said interpretations that the law change restricts SROs "from engaging in any physical contact to address non-violent behavior" are not correct, they "simply must avoid the restraints identified."
"If a student is misbehaving in a way that does not and will not harm that student or anyone else, professionals in schools still have many tools at their disposal," reads the supplemental opinion.
In a recent letter to city and law enforcement officials in her district, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman wrote there is only "one standard for use of force by peace officers regardless of their role," and the Legislature did not change that statute.
How many SROs have been pulled from schools?
There's no centralized tally of how many law enforcement agencies have suspended their school resource officer programs, but an unofficial count kept by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association had the number at about 40 as of Wednesday.
Walz on Tuesday said about 60 agencies are operating on a "hybrid" model. Several law enforcement agencies that have pulled officers from school campuses say they've instead moved them to assignments patrolling surrounding neighborhoods in order to maintain a presence among the district.
Three large metro-area districts — Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hopkins — haven't had armed police patrol their schools since 2020.
Why is there a push to come back to St. Paul for a special session?
The Minnesota Legislature is not scheduled to come back to St. Paul again until Feb. 12. Republicans in the House and Senate have said that's too long to wait to tackle the issue, especially as more officers are being pulled from districts.
What is the proposed legislative fix?
Republicans in the minority in the Legislature have proposed legislation that would repeal the changes made last session, as well as a related requirement to record how often restraints are used in schools. Top GOP leaders have said they're also open to tweaking the language, rather than a full repeal.
What is the governor saying about the possibility of a special session?
Walz has said he's open to calling lawmakers back to tackle the issue but he hopes further clarification on the intent of the law will satisfy concerns from law enforcement agencies to get officers back in schools without having to return to the Capitol.
"In an age where everybody is under the microscope, especially when it comes to policing and use of force, there's a nervousness there," Walz said this week. "I believe all police agencies want to be back in those schools, they want to be doing their jobs."