Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

As a new school year arrives, changes to school resource officer rules reignites debate over school safety

A police chief and other city officials.
Police Chief Shannon Monroe (left) speaks to reporters on Dec. 22, 2021, in Moorhead, Minn., as Mayor Shelly Carlson and Interim Fire Chief Jeff Wallin listen.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

At least four county sheriffs and two local police departments have announced they are pulling school resource officers out of schools following a law change limiting use of physical restraints on students, with additional announcements expected to come this week.

And Wednesday morning, some of those groups, along with GOP lawmakers, pressed for a special session to clear up the law.

MPR News political reporter Dana Ferguson and education reporter Elizabeth Shockman joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about this latest debate over school safety.

Police departments pull school officers due to Minnesota restraint law

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: And leading the program, at least four county sheriffs and two local police departments say they're pulling their resource officers from schools this fall. There was a state law change that now limits the use of physical restraints on students.

In the last hour, some of those law enforcement officials, along with GOP lawmakers, pressed for a special legislative session to clear up the law. Here to talk to us about this are political reporter Dana Ferguson and education reporter Elizabeth Shockman. Thank you both for joining us.


DANA FERGUSON: Thank you for having us on.

CATHY WURZER: Dana, I know you've been busy here with this news conference. Just a little bit ago, Republicans were asking the governor to call lawmakers back for a special session. What are they asking for specifically?

DANA FERGUSON: They said there wasn't enough transparency around the law change. And they think it was rushed through the process. And now they'd like to see it repealed quickly to help provide clarity for local police departments and to ensure that those officers can be in schools when students head back to class. Here's Senator Duckworth, a Lakeville Republican who opposed repealing the prone hold law as soon as possible.

ZACH DUCKWORTH: The urgency is real. It's unacceptable to parents that the legislature would wait six or more months to address this immediate concern. There's no time to spare when it comes to the safety of our kids.

DANA FERGUSON: Democrats said they've been seeking to change this policy for years and held hearings during the budget writing process where they didn't get much feedback on the policy positive or negative. And Governor Tim Walz has said his administration is still clarifying the law. But he doesn't think a special session is needed since guidance from the attorney general allows these prone holds in situations where there's a threat of injury or death.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Now, Elizabeth, what exactly is the type of physical restraint in question here?

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: So I spoke to Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts this week. And I asked him to demonstrate a hold that might be used on a student. What he showed me looked kind of like what you do in a Heimlich maneuver. So like an officer standing behind someone wrapping their arms around their shoulders and chest to keep them from moving. But the law in question here is not stopping all restraints.

In his legal opinion, Attorney General Ellison said that the law is meant to ensure that the force used on students in situations where officers or other school employees are trying to prevent bodily harm or death be, quote, "reasonable." In situations where there is no risk of bodily harm or death, the law is meant to keep School Resource Officers, or SROs, and other school workers from holding students face down or using any sort of restraint that impairs a student's ability to breathe.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Can you give us a scenario that involves a student that the SROs are worried about?

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: So Jeff Potts laid out a few different situations. He was worried about instances where there might not be an immediate threat of bodily harm or death. So for example, a student who is really upset and, say, throwing lunch trays or shouting in the cafeteria. This is a situation that might make other students really uncomfortable or frightened.

Or maybe there's someone who gets into the school that doesn't belong there and isn't responding to verbal requests to stop walking or to talk to an SRO. Potts said these were situations in which an SRO might need to restrain a student. But the conditions of the new law made him worried SROs would open themselves up to legal trouble by intervening.

CATHY WURZER: Dana, now, I know you talked to one of the bill's authors about the intent. Is this the outcome that they expected when they drafted the bill?

DANA FERGUSON: No, it's not. I spoke to Representative Laurie Pryor yesterday. And she said the goal of this law was to create safer conditions for students and to limit excessive force used against them. The state has had a similar law since 2015 barring holds that restrict breathing or ability to voice distress on students with disabilities. And she said this just expands that coverage to all students.

Pryor said lawmakers could come back to tweak the policy if they hear something about how it's going really wrong. But she didn't think they'd reached that threshold just yet. And she said for now, bill sponsors and the executive branch can do more to explain it.

LAURIE PRYOR: From the conversations that I've had and my understanding of where we are right now, I think a lot of what we need to do is just clear up misunderstandings and provide more clarity for what the legislation actually does and what the statute actually says now.

CATHY WURZER: Elizabeth, I know you've been talking to researchers about school resource officers. What do we know about how effective they are in keeping students safe in school?

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: That's right. So I spent some time yesterday talking to James Densley. He's a professor at Metro State University. And he studies youth violence. There hasn't been a ton of research into how effective school resource officers are at preventing violence in schools, including school shootings or, for example, fights among students.

Densley and his colleague at the Violence Project have run their own study on what happens when an armed officer is at a school in the event of a mass shooting. So they found a really surprising correlation that the death count could actually increase whenever there was an armed officer on the scene. Here's what Densley had to say.

JAMES DENSLEY: Many of the school shooters that perpetrate the big, high-profile mass shooting events are suicidal prior to entering the building. And so they may have anticipated being shot and killed by the school resource officer. It might have actually been part of their plan. And so rather than acting as a deterrent to violence, they were incentivizing it.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: So, obviously, this is correlation, not causation. It's only one study. But those are some of their findings.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So you touched just briefly on school fights. What do we know about situations like fights?

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Again, we don't know much. There's not a ton of research. And the studies that have been conducted really have a mixed bag of findings. So in many instances, the presence of an officer at a school can get student problems, as Densley put it, redefined as criminal. So there tend to be more weapons and drugs found when students, I'm sorry, when officers are at a school. And officers are trained to use force to arrest or detain students.

There are other instances, however, where students are able to de-escalate, I'm sorry, officers are able to de-escalate situations or build really powerful relationships with students as well as networks in a school that can help them connect with a wider community.

When students themselves are surveyed about how they feel with officers in their school, there tends to be differences along racial and ethnic lines. Officers tend to make white students feel safer. And students of color feel like they're under surveillance and less safe.

CATHY WURZER: What do we know about researchers and what they recommend in terms of school safety?

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: So when it comes to Densley and his colleague Jillian Peterson at the Violence Project, they talked about a 95 to 5 rule in criminology. So that means when you look at violent crime in a community or a school, 5% of the population is causing 95% of the violence. So for Densley and his colleague, the key to reducing violence in schools is focusing on that 5% of students who he pointed out are also likely to be struggling academically.

So he mentioned things like reducing class sizes, hiring more teachers, getting more paraprofessionals in schools to work with struggling students, focusing on literacy and extracurriculars that really engage and work with students that are having trouble. So this is something that's obviously a more comprehensive investment and approach. It takes a lot more time than hiring a school resource officer.

CATHY WURZER: Say, Dana, lawmakers, of course, passed this huge education funding bill this past session. Did they take some steps to address some of these factors around school safety?

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah, they did. As you mentioned, they approved a huge $23.2 billion education budget for the next two years, which DFLers say can help shrink class sizes and put more resources into the classroom. They also funded additional mental health support for students and schools and increased grant funding for school security and full-service community schools. Those are steps that Democrats say can keep students more engaged and feeling safer in the classroom along with the prone hold ban.

But Republicans today said there should be more of a focus on funding additional school resource officers, preparing for potential threats, and clarifying that officers can use prone holds in more situations. It's a conversation that's likely to continue into 2024 as schools grapple with teacher shortages and other ongoing issues.

CATHY WURZER: So real quick here, Dana, do you expect-- do officials expect to see more cities, maybe more county sheriffs pulling resource officers out of schools?

DANA FERGUSON: Yeah, we do. We've heard today that Champlin is going to be making that move. We know that Blaine as early as tomorrow could do the same thing. Their city council is going to meet. Other city councils around the state are thinking about this week. And we'll get a sense pretty soon after school boards and city councils decide this just how many others will pull out of their local schools.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Dana Ferguson, thank you so much. And Elizabeth Shockman, also my thanks.

DANA FERGUSON: Thank you, Cathy.


CATHY WURZER: Dana Ferguson is a political reporter for NPR. Elizabeth Shockman is our education reporter.

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