Updated: 6 p.m.
After several weeks of controversy and legal debate, some Minnesota law enforcement agencies are starting to return their resource officers to schools — but a new interpretation of recent changes to state law is causing further uncertainty.
A few dozen Minnesota law enforcement agencies pulled their school resource officers out of schools in recent weeks, citing a lack of clarity about the changes in state law that they believed could legally limit officers or staff in how they can physically restrain students when needed.
Earlier this week KARE 11 reported Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty sent a letter to police chiefs in her county outlining her office’s interpretation of the law in question.
According to her reading, the law bans school resource officers — SROs — from using prone restraints or holds that restrict students’ ability to breathe or communicate distress, except “to prevent bodily harm or death.”
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This differs from a legal opinion issued last week by Attorney General Keith Ellison. He said the law doesn’t change when SROs can use force.
Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association took Ellison’s opinion — his second on the issue — as a step towards a resolution on the issue.
Some agencies that had pulled their SROs over concern with the law, including the Blue Earth County Sheriff's Office, Mankato Department of Public Safety and Eagan Police Department, said they would return their officers to schools. Law enforcement agencies bringing back their SRO programs have cited Ellison’s further clarification of the law in making their decisions.
Moriarty’s office said that her letter came after local police chiefs had asked for her reading of the law.
“The county attorney talks frequently with Hennepin County chiefs and has a developed a trusting, open, and transparent relationship with them,” her office said in a statement. “They know they can ask her questions directly and seek her guidance, and that the county attorney will be direct and honest in response, even as they recognize we cannot provide their departments with legal advice.”
Ellison’s office, in a statement, noted that Moriarty’s opinion is not legally binding.
“As the County Attorney concedes, only the Attorney General’s opinion is binding under state law. Her interpretation is not,” a spokesperson for the Ellison’s office said.
Moriarty’s letter prompted Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association President Brian Peters to send his own letter to members on Friday, highlighting the differing opinions.
“We are disappointed to hear that the county attorney of our state’s largest county is in direct conflict with our state’s Attorney General,” Peters wrote. “We know this could lead to 87 county attorney positions as well, which have the prosecution authority on civil and criminal charges for our rank-and-file members.”
Peters wrote that “the only way to adequately address this issue and return school resource officers to school is an urgent legislative fix.” He said his group is urging members to work with their local city and county attorneys, and advising school resource officers to use caution until the Legislature revisits the law.
Meanwhile, Mankato’s SROs will be returning to schools on Monday.
“We have been working with the school districts since this whole situation came to light. We have been in many meetings and discussions, and we now feel comfortable — both us and the school district — with moving forward,” Mankato’s Director of Public Safety Amy Vokal said.
MPR News reporter Hannah Yang contributed to this report.