School resource officers (SROs) are set to return to two districts in Blue Earth County.
This comes about a week after Attorney General Keith Ellison released a second opinion meant to clarify when officers are allowed to use force, including certain kinds of restraints, under a new law.
A number of law enforcement agencies across the state have recently pulled officers from schools, saying they needed more clarity. And they called for a special session to revise the law.
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association sent a letter to its members agreeing to Ellison's updated guidance. Blue Earth County Sheriff Jeff Wersal told MPR News reporter Tim Nelson he is following that advice.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
“Every case is different, every case is unique. So as long as the deputy can articulate the need for force — once POST [Board] weighed in and MPPOA weighed in — I felt comfortable putting them back in,” he said. “I still feel, though, that it needs to be looked at by the legislature.”
The Blue Earth County Sheriff’s office oversees the deputies that work in St. Clair and Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial School District, which have about 760 and 960 students respectively. Mankato Area Public Schools is by far the largest district in Blue Earth County, and that city’s Public Safety Department also pulled its SROs over the law.
A school district spokesperson told MPR News the city is waiting for guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities, expected sometime this week.
St. Clair Superintendent Tim Collins and Lake Crystal Superintendent Mark Westerburg joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the decision to reinstate SROs.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.
A number of law enforcement agencies across the state pulled officers from schools earlier this month saying they needed more clarity, and they called for a special session to revise the law. The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association sent a letter to its members last week agreeing to Ellison's updated guidance. Blue Earth County Sheriff Jeff Wersal told NPR News reporter Tim Nelson he's following that advice.
JEFF WERSAL: Every case is different. Every case is unique. So as long as the deputy can articulate the need for force, then I felt comfortable once POST weighed in again and MPTOA, I felt comfortable putting them back in. I still feel, though, that it needs to be looked at by the legislature.
CATHY WURZER: The Blue Earth County Sheriff oversees the deputies that work in Saint Clair and Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial School District, which have about 760 and 960 students apiece. Joining us right now to talk about the decision to reinstate SROs, Saint Clair Superintendent Tim Collins and Lake Crystal Superintendent Mark Westerburg. Thanks to both for making time. I appreciate it.
MARK WESTERBURG: You're welcome.
TIM COLLINS: You're welcome.
CATHY WURZER: Mark, I'm going to start with you first. How have you been communicating with the Sheriff's Office and the city about bringing back SROs?
MARK WESTERBURG: Well, we've talked on the phone multiple times. I see our SRO in person because he lives in our community, and he is a local policeman for us. And so it's very different in Tim and I's community. We know our SRO. There's only two or three officers that work in the Lake Crystal department, so we know them.
The kids call them by their first name, so it's a very different environment. And I understand why in Minneapolis if you have 15 to 20 of them in all your different buildings, you need guidelines. We don't need that. We'll take care of our own issues. This is a local control issue for me.
CATHY WURZER: Tim Collins, what's the issue for you here?
TIM COLLINS: Well, I think for me, people don't understand that the SRO is more than just law enforcement. At Saint Clair, we're a K-12 site, so we have kindergartners, third graders, fifth graders, high school seniors, and juniors all walking in the hallway at the same time. And for me, our officer-- as Mark said, we've known him for a long time. He's playing kickball with the elementary students at recess.
He's eating lunch with the high school seniors and juniors. And by the time they get up to junior high and senior high, they've known him for the last five to six years. It's really building a culture of students being able to see a law enforcement officer as a friend and somebody that they can talk to about their issues. For me, that was the real big issue when this law change occurred.
CATHY WURZER: So there's all this kerfuffle, back and forth and back and forth for the past, gosh, more than a month or so. I mentioned the attorney general came out with this revised opinion. But if you look at the two opinions, they're not all that different. Do you both think it was worth all the trouble to pull SROs out for what looks like fairly small changes in the guidance? I'm going to start with Mr. Westerburg.
MARK WESTERBURG: Well, of course, we don't think it was worth it to be less safe in the building. However, I'm not going to ask the police who we partner with-- they're not our employees. We partner with them. Even though we pay them for their service when they're here, they still are our partners.
They're not our employees. And if they're not comfortable being able to do their job, I would assume that they would be hesitant to be here, and I'm not going to force them to be somewhere they're uncomfortable. Because again, we're a small community, and they can come in from the outside and do their job as normal.
But when they're in our building under our pay, if you will, they're not able to do their job as they feel it's necessary, I understand that. I'm sympathetic to their cause. We make policing really difficult these days anyway, and I don't want to make it more complicated.
And the chances of our schools having significant incidences like this is talking about are more than an anomaly in my district and in Tim's. We're not having out-of-control situations.
We're talking about me needing day to day operations. And when the state has $1 billion plus surplus, we're cutting back saving money being less safe. It doesn't make any sense.
CATHY WURZER: So it sounds like, Tim Collins, you really have never had-- you have you had an opportunity, or has there been a situation where your SRO has had to use force in your schools? It doesn't seem like that has happened.
TIM COLLINS: No. And that's, I think, a perception that might be out there because the law is focused on that. And I agree with Mark. This is my 31st year of being a superintendent in the state of Minnesota. I was at Hastings for 20 years, which is a suburb of the metro area. And knock on wood, very, very rarely does an SRO have to use force in a school district.
I was there for 20 years. I've been here now for four years. Basically, it's just trying to get a student to calm down. It is not taking a student, putting them to the ground, and holding them down until law officers come. And I can say that both in a suburban school district of Hastings and since I've been at Saint Clair, that is not their day to day role.
Now, is it nice to have somebody here if that situation would arise? It hardly ever arises because of the relationships and the culture that you build with your SRO and with your staff. You can avoid 98% of potential situations that might lead to that use of force.
CATHY WURZER: Would you both like to see the legislature revisit this law? What do you think, Tim Collins?
TIM COLLINS: Oh, absolutely. Because I still think-- the law passed. It's been interpreted by law enforcement. Then, Keith Ellison comes in and interprets it. I still think there's some vagueness.
And I do think that if a situation happened in Minnesota right now, I do think if it went before a judge, that judge would be interpreting it, not the lawmakers, not Keith Ellison, because it would go before a judge. So I do think that our legislators have to revisit this and make it crystal clear.
CATHY WURZER: Mr. Westerburg?
MARK WESTERBURG: Yeah, I would as well. And let me just say again. I think this is a classic case of unintended consequences. Again, in a Minneapolis environment if I were the superintendent and we had 25 or more SROs, we might need some guidelines.
But in my district, we have one person who we all know. And if the relationship with the officer isn't working, we can deal with that. We'll deal with that long before the legislature will. So I think it's kind of unintended consequences, and they need to fix it.
CATHY WURZER: And by the way, have you been talking to other school districts about this? What have you been hearing, Mr. Westerburg?
MARK WESTERBURG: The same thing. It's that they're disappointed with the fact that the SROs, as Tim has explained very well, do more than just show up at your building and sit around waiting for an emergency to happen. That's the least of what they do.
They're here and interacting and helping us with kids. They present in classrooms. They present an image that law enforcement is not the bad guy, that you work with them.
And so that's the image we want to have, not they're here to protect us. Sure, they can, but it's kind of like the ambulance service. They're nice to have around when that happens, but we hope we don't have to use them for that.
CATHY WURZER: All right. Gentlemen, I know you're busy. Thank you so much for your time today.
TIM COLLINS: Thank you.
MARK WESTERBURG: Thank you.
CATHY WURZER: Tim Collins is Superintendent of the Saint Clair School District. Mark Westerburg is Superintendent of the Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial Schools. Now, Mankato Area Public Schools is by far the largest district in Blue Earth County.
We've been talking about Blue Earth County, and that city's public safety department also pulled its SROs over the law. A school district spokesperson tells us that the city is waiting for guidance from the League of Minnesota Cities, which is expected to come sometime yet this week.
Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.