Police departments pull school officers due to Minnesota restraint law

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During a news conference at the Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday, Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany urged lawmakers to clarify a law that limits when school resource officers can use prone holds on students.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Updated 1:40 p.m.

A week before most Minnesota students head back to school, local police departments are removing officers from schools because of a new state law limiting physical restraints that can be used on students.

On Tuesday, sheriffs in Clay and Hennepin counties, along with Coon Rapids police, announced that they would pull school resource officers from local schools. And the Champlin Police Department said on Wednesday that it would follow suit.

The moves come after Anoka and St. Louis counties, along with Moorhead police, said they would also remove school resource officers due to concerns about the law change. And others planned to weigh whether to pull officers or alter their strategies in coming days during city council and county commission meetings.

State lawmakers this year approved a broad education bill that bans some physical holds, including prone restraints of students. The law says that school employees and school resource officers can’t physically restrain students in a way that impacts their ability to breathe or voice distress — including holds that put students face down on the ground.

A similar policy banning prone restraints on students with disabilities has been on the books since 2015. Lawmakers this year expanded the policy to cover all students. The Walz Administration supported the change, and bill authors said it could limit instances of force against students.

“Part of doing it for everybody is to make sure that their rights are guaranteed and their protection is guaranteed,” Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka, said. Pryor chairs the House Education Policy Committee. 

“We want to make sure that they are being handled in a way that really respects the fact that they're young, they’re children,” Pryor continued. “And we want to make sure that we don't create situations that will lead to excessive force, we want to make sure that our kids are safe and that they are being handled in a way that's really respecting their needs.”

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Rep. Laurie Pryor takes a picture with her name inside the House Chamber in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

In a report presented to the Legislature late last year, the Minnesota Department of Education said it tracked more than 10,000 physical holds of students during the 2021-2022 school year. That is the most recent data available. The report did not elaborate on how many of those were prone holds or holds that impacted student breathing. 

Police groups said the law prevents school resource officers from intervening in cases where students destroy property or pose a physical threat. They’re pressing state leaders to return to the Capitol to resolve questions around the policy and how it should be rolled out.

“The only way I believe to remedy this is through a special session,” said Minnesota Police and Peace Officer Association General Counsel Imran Ali. “There's a lot of confusion. And law enforcement, they're scared. They're scared about the application of this law. … I can't imagine a law enforcement officer in this day and age, a school resource officer, having to navigate through all these different legal opinions when it just should be clear.”

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday called for the immediate repeal of the law during a new conference at the Capitol.

“The urgency is real. It's unacceptable to parents that the Legislature would wait six or more months to address this immediate concern,” said Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville. “There's no time to spare when it comes to the safety of our kids.”

Gov. Tim Walz and DFL leaders said the law can hold for now and legislators can tweak it come February when they return to the Capitol for next year’s regular legislative session.

“This is not meant to preclude school resource officers from being able to intervene in cases of life or injuries, but it also sets some limits to make sure we’re protecting the children,” Gov. Tim Walz told MPR News last week.

Walz on Wednesday reiterated that he doesn’t plan to call lawmakers back for a special session. And he said lawmakers approved additional school funding and restrictions on firearms that would improve student safety.

To date, Anoka, Clay, Hennepin and St. Louis county sheriffs, along with the Champlin, Coon Rapids and Moorhead police departments have announced that they’ll remove officers from schools due to the law change. Other departments are expected to make similar announcements soon, said Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts.

“I do think there will be more that are going to decide to, you know, either cancel the contracts or try to do it differently than they have in the past based on the new law,” Potts told MPR News on Tuesday, noting several police chiefs had reached out. “I have not seen a situation like this in my time as the executive director, where they've had this much difficulty making these decisions.”

Potts said the state has adopted changes more broadly to its use of force laws in recent years — including banning chokeholds and mandating officers to intervene if they witness another officer using inappropriate use of force — but the law governing student restraints creates different parameters for school resource officers.

Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt said it was a difficult decision to pull a school resource officer out of Rockford High School. But she said the law change created too much ambiguity around when an officer can step in. Witt said she consulted with several attorneys before making the choice.

“The current laws, as written, will stop us from intervening. So I have a duty to also protect my deputies and I don't want to put them in that situation where they could potentially be prosecuted, because there's that law, the way that it reads does not give us the right to intervene,” Witt said.

Local law enforcement leaders have echoed those remarks in announcing they will withdraw school resource officers in districts around the state. About 28 percent of Minnesota schools work with school resource officers, according to a Department of Public Safety survey, with half of those officers working in the Twin Cities metro and half in Greater Minnesota.

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Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt speaks at a news conference about public safety financing in Minneapolis.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany told reporters Wednesday that his department and others were considering alternative staffing options — such as keeping officers near school zones or occasionally doing walk-throughs rather than entering into contracts with school districts. He said that could expand their options when responding to situations in schools or extracurricular activities.

“If we're not back in the schools, we are still trying to do something to try to ensure for the safety of our students,” Podany said. “It just will not be that effective, personal connection.”

DFL leaders and law’s authors say some of the assessments overstate what the law will do.

Attorney General Keith Ellison last week issued clarification on the law and he said that prone restraints could still be used in some situations. 

“The new law did not limit the types of reasonable force that may be used by school and staff to prevent bodily harm or death. So that is based on review of case law legislation and prior legislation,” Ellison said in an interview. “And so the test for reasonable force remains unchanged and it's highly fact-specific.”

Pryor said that there was initial misunderstanding about how the law would roll out but that Ellison’s guidance cleared much of that up. And now the department of education and the executive branch can continue drafting clarification and training procedures for schools.

“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,” Pryor said.

Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said lawmakers were working with the Department of Education on additional guidance around the law, and the Legislature could revisit it if those efforts prove insufficient.

But some law enforcement groups said a change should come sooner than 2024.

Potts said the attorney general’s guidance helped clarify the policy but local law enforcement leaders still had questions about what is permitted.

“February is seven months away. That is a long time. And I think while we all agree that this needs to be fixed, I really hope we don't have to wait until February to do that,” Potts said. “School safety is important to everyone … it's an issue that is of high importance. Our hope was that they would come together before the session starts and try to address this issue so that we have clarity and no ambiguity.”

MPR News education reporter Elizabeth Shockman contributed to this report.