As schools open, a legislative special session is needed to address ambiguity involving SROs

In the past week, at least twelve (12) law enforcement agencies across Minnesota have reportedly decided to pull their school resource officers (SROs) from area schools. These agencies include sheriff’s offices in Hennepin County, Anoka County, Clay County, and Ottertail County, and police departments from Alexandria, Blaine, Coon Rapids, Champlin, Moorhead, Plymouth, Redwood Falls, and Wayzata. 

We should expect more to follow suit.

This action comes as a result of language DFL leaders added to the 2023 legislative education bill that is viewed by many as ambiguous around the issue of use of force by SROs. 

The Issue

The language restricts SROs from using force that restricts a child’s ability to breathe or communicate distress. This is clear, reasonable, and not at issue with police. 

However, the language also restricts SROs from any force that places a child in a prone position or results in “straddling a child’s torso,” and it appears to restrict an SRO from using any force at all in situations where the threat of “bodily harm or death” is unclear. 

This leaves law enforcement officers operating as SROs in an unacceptable position to stand by as a student destroys property, attempts to flee a lawful arrest, or any number of situations where the law is being broken but bodily harm or death is not clear.

The legislature created the issue by failing to include law enforcement representatives in the discussion. It’s an example of a poor legislative process that excluded key stakeholders from committee hearings and from offering important input that could have helped avoid the resulting ambiguity. Minnesotan’s and our school children deserve better.

The Response

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA) has taken the lead in speaking for law enforcement on the issue. The MPPOA has met with Attorney General Ellison, prompting him to issue a legal opinion. In it, the attorney general opined that the new law didn’t affect reasonable force involving situations where bodily harm or death were at issue, but that other situations would be more appropriate if directed to the legislature.

The MPPOA has also offered guidance to its members, and called for a special session of the legislature to address the ambiguity that exists with the new law.

The Minnesota Chiefs of Police and Minnesota Sheriff’s Associations have also issued statements in support of prompt clarification of the issue.

In response to the calls for clarity, DFL legislative leaders have suggested they are willing to address the concerns, but not until February when the 2024 legislative session begins.  Governor Walz has similarly suggested that he is interested in providing clarity to the situation but has refused to call a special session of the legislature.

As a result of this stalemate, many of our state’s largest schools and school districts will be without the valuable assistance of SROs for the foreseeable future. 

For clarity, traditional law enforcement officers will still be responsive to safety and security incidents at these schools. In fact, the law at issue does not restrict law enforcement officers, not contracted by school districts to serve as SROs, from reasonable use of force where a traditional law enforcement response is needed. But the loss of the familiarity and consistent presence of the many contracted SROs across the state will impact the sense of security in those schools.

The solution

The clear solution is for Governor Walz to call a special session to address this singular issue.

Absent a special session, law enforcement agencies should consider adding language to their SRO contracts with school districts that would guarantee the district indemnify and legally defend their SROs in the event of a civil or criminal claim.