Tim Walz open to school resource officer fix. What’s the issue?


With the school year starting Tuesday for most students throughout Minnesota, some showed up to buildings where law enforcement had pulled their school resource officers.

Law enforcement has raised concerns about a change in state law regarding what force school resource officers can use against students. Minnesota Republican legislators called last week for a special legislative session to revert the law back to its previous form.

Gov. Tim Walz, visiting an elementary school Tuesday morning in Bloomington, responded to a media question about whether a special session was needed.

“I think we all want a solution to this,” he said. “Some districts have worked it out and they believe the language is clarified” and others have not. … “I’m certainly open to anything that provides a solution to that, if that means the Legislature working it out to make sure we have it.”

The value of SROs is the relationships that are built “long before anything happens,” Walz said.

“The issue around the use of force in these situations is such a rarity,” he said. “… All of us want our buildings safe and all of us want to make sure that excessive force is not used on our students. I think finding that middle ground shouldn’t be all that difficult.”

The Pioneer Press took a look at what’s at issue:

What did state law say before and after the last legislative session?

New language was added to Minnesota’s law about corporal punishment in schools, changing the title to read, “Corporal punishment; Prone restraint; and Certain physical holds.”

These paragraphs, which didn’t previously exist, were added:

“Prone restraint and certain physical holds not allowed. (a) 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.

(b) 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.”

A definition was added to say, “For the purpose of this section, ‘prone restraint’ means placing a child in a face-down position.”

The “reasonable force standard” of the law was changed. 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.”

What did Keith Ellison say in his legal opinion?

Attorney General Keith Ellison issued a legal opinion on Aug. 23, at the Minnesota Education commissioner’s request, regarding amendments to school discipline laws.

“That opinion clarifies that the amendments do not limit the types of force that may be used by school employees and agents to prevent bodily harm or death, but retain the instruction that force must be ‘reasonable’ in those situations,” according to a statement from Ellison’s office. “In other situations that do not pose any threat of bodily harm or death, the amendments provide that school employees and agents ‘shall not use prone restraint’ or ‘inflict any form of physical holding that restricts or impairs a pupil’s ability to breathe,’ among other provisions.”

What is law enforcement concerned about?

The attorney general’s opinion doesn’t resolve a situation of an unruly student damaging property, trespassing into a school and other examples, said Jeff Potts, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association executive director. With the removal of the word “or,” the law now says school resource officers and staff can only restrain students to prevent bodily harm or death, Potts said.

“They can’t intervene and use any kind of a restraint, and that could be as simple as restraining the student by their arm, stopping the student from going further into the school,” Potts said. “The SRO has to wait until that split second when it goes from being a violation of the law but not a threat to bodily harm or death. Those situations at a school, they’re very dynamic and it can happen very quickly. The officer not being able to use any kind of physical restraint until (it turns into a threat of bodily harm or death), sometimes it can be too late and then there’s potential for other students to get hurt.”

Law enforcement leaders also say the law applies two standards to officers — a patrol officer responding to a school isn’t subject to the same law as a school resource officer.

Legislators in 2020 banned officers from using chokeholds and compressive restraints across the board in Minnesota, not just in schools, except “to protect the peace officer or another from death or great bodily harm.”

“The new law (about SROs) adds more uncertainty since these issues were addressed” previously, said Imran Ali, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association general counsel. He said no officer wants to use force, especially on juveniles, and the issue is about providing clarity to officers.

The teachers’ union in Minnesota said school administrators have a “clear responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students to learn and our staff to work.”

“We look forward to seeing the plan, or plans, from school boards and superintendents to provide those secure workspaces in communities in which certain police departments have decided to stop providing school resource officers,” said Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president. “School staff also need clear guidance from their administrators and the state of Minnesota about when and how they can intervene to protect themselves and students in situations that pose a risk of bodily injury.”

How did the legislation come about?

The language that became law was initially in Walz’s education policy recommendations to the Legislature in 2021 and became law this session, said Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka, who chairs the House education policy committee.

Minnesota Department of Education staff walked legislators through the bill and there was a public hearing in the education policy committee in February, Pryor said. There were also public hearings in the same committee and in the education finance committee in March. Legislators from both parties of the House and Senate met in May to finalize the entire education funding and policy package, which included the SRO language.

The House didn’t receive verbal or written testimony in opposition to the changes to prone and physical restraints, and Pryor said law enforcement groups didn’t bring the bill to their attention as something they wanted to weigh in on.

But the police chief association focuses on the public safety and judiciary committees, and the bill related to SROs didn’t come up there, so they didn’t find out about it until after it was signed into law, Potts said.

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville and assistant minority leader, heard about the bill in February in the Senate education policy committee, of which he’s a member. He said during the committee hearing that he had concerns about the provisions related to school resource officers and encouraged feedback from police and school districts, but didn’t hear more during the legislative session.

There were other aspects of the education bill that legislators focused on and “this one, I think, flew under the radar,” Duckworth said. “I think if we knew what we know now, that it would result in school resource officers being pulled out of buildings, I don’t think that provision would pass. … Obviously, nobody’s advocating for police to use excessive force but the law that passed prevents them, based on their understanding, from potentially breaking up or preventing a fight.”

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