Moorhead police pull out of schools over restrictions in new state law

Blowback over restrictions in a new state law on how police officers in schools can legally respond to violent incidents hit the fan with the announcement Moorhead Police Department will pull all school resource officers from district hallways this school year. The development follows concerns expressed by police departments statewide that controversial provisions passed by the DFL-controlled legislature restricting officers’ actions could endanger staff and other students in volatile situations.

But Moorhead P.D. became the first law enforcement agency to stand down after serving in the schools for more than 30 years, rather than operate under the legal uncertainty over the restrictions detailed by Forum News.

After a change to Minnesota law, the Moorhead Police Department is pulling its school resource officers out of Moorhead Area Public Schools, the city said in a Thursday, Aug. 24, release.

“Recent changes in Minnesota law have been interpreted by legal counsel to remove the standard law enforcement authority of officers contracted by school districts or assigned to work in schools,” Capt. Deric Swenson said in the release.

A section of Minnesota’s education bill signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz in May limits the holds school resource officers can use on students. Under the law, school resource officers cannot use a prone, or face down, restraint.

Earlier this week Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison issued a legal opinion on the new state requirements that was meant to reassure school resource officers. It was widely covered by KSTP-TV and other media.

In a legal opinion, Ellison said the use of “reasonable force” is still allowed by school employees and law enforcement to “prevent bodily harm or death.” The new law does not change the definition of “reasonable force,” Ellison wrote.

“Safety is essential for learning, and everyone in our schools — students, teachers, staff, administrators, SROs, and families — wants to be safe and feel safe,” Ellison said in a statement. “The aims of the new amendments to our school-discipline laws are worthy. I issued this opinion upon [Education Commissioner Willie] Jett’s request because it is important to provide clarity about the amendments’ scope.”

But Ellison’s reassurances were not good enough to gain backing from Minnesota’s police chiefs, many of whom have officers assigned to schools.

In a statement Wednesday, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association said that Ellison’s legal opinion resolves some of the issues with the new law, but doesn’t address many scenarios that school resource officers may encounter, such as what is acceptable from school resource officers in situations that don’t pose a threat of bodily harm or death.

“Our number one priority continues to be keeping students and staff members inside schools across our state safe,” Executive Director Jeff Potts said. “Although we are grateful for the Attorney General’s expertise and thoughtful opinion, we still aren’t confident that can be accomplished with the new law.”

Law enforcement agencies around the state share those concerns. One state legislator went so far on Lakeland Broadcasting to suggest holding a mini-special session of the legislature before school starts to correct the controversial restrictions.

Representative Dean Urdahl says the new rules forbid putting any student on the ground in a prone restraint, or restraining the student in any way that might obstruct their breathing. Urdahl says it has caused confusion and concern…Urdahl has suggested a short special session might be held before school starts to give clarification to school resource officers.

Top law enforcement agencies and associations continue to meet in an effort to find a solution that allows school resource officers the flexibility to do their jobs. Unless a resolution is reached soon, Moorhead may just be the first of several Minnesota police departments to pull officers out of schools due to legislative overreach.