Minnesota Republicans demand repeal of ban on student restraints

Minnesota's largest school district will lose all but one of its school resource officers by the time classes begin Tuesday amid uncertainty over a controversial new ban on student restraints that Republicans want to repeal.

GOP legislators, flanked by police from across the metro area, said during a news conference Wednesday that they want Gov. Tim Walz to call a special session to fix what they say is a harmful law that makes campuses less safe. The provision approved as part of the sweeping education bill in May restricts the kinds of physical holds police can place students in, and police have said it would force officers to call for backup from off-campus patrols rather than resolving problems quickly.

"In emergency situations, minutes matter. Seconds matter," said Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, noting that he raised concerns with the provisions during an education policy committee meeting in February.

The measure prompted law enforcement officials to pull 11 of the 12 school resources officers from the Anoka-Hennepin district — leaving just one at Champlin Park High School, district spokesman Jim Skelly said Wednesday. The district is the state's largest, serving nearly 39,000 students.

Officials from Anoka-Hennepin and the nearby Centennial district support the call to tweak the law, as do several law enforcement agencies.

The Moorhead Police Department suspended its school resource officer program last week over concerns about the new law. On Tuesday, Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt said she was removing the school resource office from Rockford High School because of the law's "ambiguous limitations" on the officer's ability to full the duties of the job.

"Keeping our schools safe should never be a partisan issue," Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association General Counsel Imran Ali said in a statement. "With school starting next week, we must act with urgency and not wait until February."

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison issued a legal opinion declaring that new law does not bar officers from "reasonable" uses of force, but several law enforcement agencies say they still lack clarity on the legislation.

Walz, through a spokesperson, did not answer direct questions on whether he would convene a special session.

"Our administration will continue working with school districts and law enforcement agencies to ensure they have the guidance and resources they need to do their jobs effectively," Walz said in a statement.

DFL chairs of the House and Senate education committees issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they valued school resource officers' roles and noting the Walz administration "is working diligently to ensure that districts and law enforcement have the guidance they need to do their jobs effectively."

The new law prohibits school resource officers from putting students in the prone position or restraining them in a way that keeps a child from signaling distress or difficulty breathing. Some police chiefs, sheriffs and county attorneys have interpreted the law to mean that those officers can't even hold a student by the wrist if they're threatening to damage school property or engage in other criminal activity.

"We don't want to go hands-on with anyone, especially students," Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany said.

But, he added, the new law makes it difficult for school resource officers to intervene when they encounter vandalism or someone trespassing. According to the new law, the threat of bodily harm or death must be "imminent," which may force officers to wait before they intervene in a verbal altercation that might escalate to a fist fight.

"You somehow have to make that delineation," Podany said. "It creates a no-win situation."

The new law also affects officers who patrol school dances and sporting events as long as the agency they work for contracts with the district, and law enforcement officials are concerned its ambiguity could leave officers open to lawsuits

Podany said he's working with school officials to maintain some sort of presence near their campuses. They've discussed having officers patrol near schools in case of emergencies and conducting regular meetings to keep Blaine police apprised of potential threats.

Anoka-Hennepin School District officials say they also support an update to the new law.

"This situation has placed both law enforcement agencies and school districts in a difficult position with school starting next week," Superintendent Cory McIntyre said in a statement.