Law enforcement groups say resource officers can return to school districts following days of conversations between police officials, lawmakers and the Minnesota Attorney General's Office that have eased concerns about a controversial law on student restraints.
The development comes amid new guidance from the state's top lawyer, along with directions from the board that licenses Minnesota police that says a school resource officer's ability to enforce local laws takes priority over the new restraint rules. Police groups also say they have assurances from the governor that he'll prioritize a patch to those rules in February.
"We will work with Governor Walz and legislative supporters to bring about a permanent resolution to this issue," Imran Ali, an attorney for the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, wrote in new guidance to members on Friday. "The sooner that is accomplished, the better for all those involved."
It is not immediately clear if, or when, agencies will return school resource officers to their posts.
The guidance said officers could return to roughly 40 schools across the state, where confusion over the new law prompted law enforcement agencies to remove staff out of fear of legal liability. Several districts maintained their school resource officer (SRO) programs throughout the tussle, some of them even expanding the ranks of police patrolling their middle and high schools.
The clarification means lawmakers are not likely to return to the Capitol to tackle the issue in a special session, but DFL legislative leaders have pledged to hold a hearing within the first two weeks of the next legislative session, which convenes Feb. 12.
"The health and welfare of everyone in the schools will be at the heart of the discussions moving forward," House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic said in a joint statement. "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."
The breakthrough comes after a meeting Wednesday night with Gov. Tim Walz, DFL legislative leaders and groups that represent law enforcement and cities. At issue for the last several weeks is a new law passed by the DFL-led Legislature in May that put restrictions on prone restraints and "any form of physical holding that restricts or impairs a pupil's ability to breathe or ... communicate distress."
The substitution of one two-letter word for another in state law led most of Minnesota's police chiefs, county attorneys and sheriffs to interpret the new law as preventing them from restraining students unless they're about to inflict harm on themselves or others.
Republicans repeatedly asked that Walz call legislators into a special session to amend the law. Walz initially said he was open to a special session, but the idea got pushback from a large group of rank-and-file DFL legislators and some education advocacy groups who said the ban on prone restraints simply extended a law passed a decade ago for students enrolled in special education programs.
Republican House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth said Friday that the issue is not resolved until every district has restored SRO coverage.
"We don't need to wait until next year," she said in a statement. "Democrats should be working with us now to hold hearings and develop a legislative fix that can pass right away instead of continuing to delay while many schools remain without SRO coverage."
An updated legal opinion from DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison released Wednesday said interpretations that the change in the law restricts SROs and school professionals "from engaging in any physical contact to address non-violent behavior" are not correct, and that they "simply must avoid the restraints identified" in the new language.
"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, including other kinds of physical contact," the supplemental opinion reads.
"Law enforcement leaders came to the Attorney General with valid questions, and I am grateful for the Attorney General's binding opinion clarifying that school resource officers can continue to do their jobs effectively," Walz said in a statement. "I am committed to further addressing this issue next legislative session and eager to see school resource officers return to schools as soon as possible."
The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training also weighed in on the attorney general's latest guidance. The agency, which licenses police officers and also has the authority to revoke their credentials, has interpreted Ellison's clarification to say that the new rules don't prohibit school resource officers from using holds and restraints if they're enforcing the law.
While legislators are not likely to come back into special session, the issue will be at the forefront when they return to the Capitol in February. Ali said DFL leaders' promises to hold hearings is helpful, but law enforcement officials wanted commitments to fixing the law.
"If this law is unable to be fixed statutorily next session, law enforcement agencies will need to re-evaluate their relationships with school districts and their SRO programs in the long-term," he wrote.