SRO fix too late for cops to staff some schools until fall

Better late than never, when it comes to legislators fixing the DFL’s botched law that led many police departments to pull officers out of schools due to liability concerns. But the belated legislative fix recently signed by Gov. Tim Walz didn’t come soon enough for several northern Minnesota law enforcement agencies.

Chronic staffing shortages continue to plague many police departments, leaving them hard-pressed to field enough officers day to day. The Hibbing Tribune points out there’s no margin for error that would allow them to abruptly reassign officers to the hallways now that lawmakers have finally fixed a law that never should have been passed in the first place.

Without enough officers to cover both daily responsibilities and SRO duties, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, Hibbing Police Department and Virginia Police Department, all say that SROs won’t return to area schools until fall.

“We don’t have staff that be plucked for full time assignments on a moments notice,” Gordon Ramsay, St. Louis County Sheriff said. “Additionally, funding has been reallocated and there are a lot of moving parts that make unlikely we will have SROs back in the schools full time this year.”

Law enforcement departments have provided resource officers to schools across the Iron Range for years. Yet many agencies pulled out of the schools due to the flawed 2023 law that handcuffed authorities in responding to incidents in the hallways. No matter how much officers may want to get back into schools, a lack of manpower rules it out.

“Overall, after the re-write of the legislation we’re pretty happy with the outcome,” Steve Estey, Hibbing Police Chief said. “There’s some additional training required and we’re okay with that. But with the staffing numbers we have, I don’t have the staff.”

Hibbing Police normally has two SROs in Hibbing schools, Estey said. But Hibbing is down six officers, Estey said.

It’s the same situation farther up Highway 169 in Virginia. Not enough officers to go around, no matter how hard the police chief works on recruiting reinforcements.

“We’re down five officers right now,” [Virginia deputy police chief Chad] Nickila said. “Three are open positions and two are out with injuries.”

The officer shortage precludes Virginia Police from placing SROs back into Rock Ridge Public Schools, Nickila said.

“We’re looking at having SROs back at the beginning of the (2024-2025) school year,” Nickila said. “Schools have done a good job in mitigating the gap, but there’s nothing like having our officers back in the schools.”

There’s no guarantee, but authorities hope to be equipped to return to schools by the beginning of classes next fall. That leaves school districts to maintain order for the rest of the school year, thanks to the half-cocked legislation that’s still wreaking havoc even after the fix.