Some police departments that started the school year with school resource officers have now paused their programs, including in Apple Valley and White Bear Lake, leading to Republican legislators calling on their Democratic counterparts Tuesday to hold informational hearings.
A change in state law, which was part of a sweeping education bill this year, has led about 40 law enforcement agencies to pause their school resource officer programs.
The law says school resource officers can’t restrain students face-down or put a student in a hold that restricts their ability to breath or communicate distress, except when necessary “to restrain a student to prevent bodily harm or death to the student or to another.”
Law enforcement leaders say the change imposes two standards on officers: School resource officers working under a contract with a school district are subject to the law, while a patrol officer responding to a school is not. They also interpret it to mean a school resource officer 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, the head of the state police chiefs’ association said last week.
Gov. Tim Walz and legislators who brought the change forward say it aligns with a law that’s been in place since 2015 regarding students with disabilities, and “this was to clarify it for the entire student body,” Walz said Tuesday.
With the change in law, Walz said they’ve made clear that if a school resource officer “needs to intervene to protect individuals or to protect and to stop a dangerous situation,” they have the same authority “they’ve always had to do exactly that.”
Walz said he understands that “in an age where everybody is under the microscope, especially when it comes to policing and the use of force, there’s a nervousness there. But I want to be very clear, I believe all of these police agencies want to be back in those schools” for safety and to build relationships.
Republicans call for hearings, Democrats respond
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and Minority Leader Sen. Mark Johnson wrote Tuesday to the chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety committee to request an informational hearing to review the changes and to let stakeholders weigh in.
“As you know, the bill specific to the changes did not get referred to or heard by our committee,” wrote Limmer, the committee’s ranking minority member. “… Unfortunately, opinions from the Attorney General’s office has not provided the level of clarification and protection our law enforcement partners require. In fact, we are seeing more schools change or end their contract with SROs as the ramifications of the law change become clearer.”
That included the police departments in White Bear Lake on Tuesday and Apple Valley and Maple Grove on Monday. Brooklyn Park police announced on Thursday the suspension of their program.
In the House, the Republican leads of the House Education Finance, Education Policy and Public Safety committees wrote Tuesday to the Democratic chairs of the committees and called on them to hold a hearing and invite law enforcement leaders “to participate and help in crafting language that addresses the shortcomings of the recently revised law.”
Senate and House leadership “are in close communication” with the governor’s office, law enforcement agencies, school districts, League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, community leaders and parents “to provide clarity and address concerns,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic said in a Tuesday statement.
“We’re having positive conversations and we’re working to get SROs back in schools as soon as possible,” they said. “Our top priority has always been the health and safety of our students.”
Governor: Clarification can happen
House and Senate Republican leaders have called for a special legislative session over the revised law.
Walz, a Democrat, said Tuesday that he’s left open “what it takes to fix this. I made the case that I think there’s still a path that we can clarify this.” He said he met with about a dozen DFL lawmakers Tuesday morning and thinks there will be a meeting later this week with law enforcement leaders.
Many school districts never had SROs and, for those who do, the majority are still in place, Walz said.
For law enforcement agencies that have pulled SROs, Walz said he thinks “the clarity that needs to be made … is to give assurances to folks because I’m absolutely convinced law enforcement doesn’t want to have situations where they put our kids into those situations. But they also want to know they have the authority, should a situation escalate, that they can take care of it.”
Police chiefs speak out
Three Apple Valley police officers who were SROs at Eastview and Apple Valley high schools, along with middle schools, were reassigned to patrol, the police department decided Monday.
“Despite these changes, we remain committed to the safety of school students and staff,” the police department said in a Tuesday statement. “You will see our uniformed officers in and around our school campuses each day.”
White Bear Lake police pulled its two SROs — one assigned to each campus of White Bear Lake Area High School. Police officers will be encouraged to walk through schools daily, as often as their call load permits, the department said Monday.
“We had a couple of incidents that maybe we would have taken alternative action had that law not been in place, but because it was we took a bit more of a backseat,” Police Chief Dale Hager said of SROs at the start of the school year.
Maple Grove Police Chief Eric Werner announced Monday that, due to ongoing confusion over the law, he would suspend use of SROs until the law is changed.
“It is unreasonable that a highly trained veteran officer assigned as an SRO is now required to stand by and call a patrol officer to perform the duties they have trained for years to perform,” he said in a statement. “The use-of-force in the school environment is extremely low. However, when split second decisions occur, SROs must be able to intervene and de-escalate a situation to keep students and school staff safe.”