Notes from the Capitol

By Paul Anderson, State House Representative District 12 B 

Much has been written of late regarding the use of School Resource Officers in our public school systems. An Aug. 1 revision of state statute added SROs to the list of school “agents” who are restricted in the use of force when handling student discipline. Because of that change, between 30 and 40 law jurisdictions in Minnesota have pulled their officers from school duty. They are seeking a clarification of what is deemed “reasonable force” in situations that may arise in a school setting. The governor and Attorney General have said the new law still provides exceptions for SROs to use reasonable force to prevent “bodily harm or death.”

But here’s where it gets cloudy. In his opinion released Aug. 22, Attorney General Keith Ellison said, “Of course, what force is ‘reasonable’ is not defined in law and is determined on a case-by-case basis.” He goes on to say, “The question of whether the school employees’ acts were a reasonable use of force is a fact issue to be answered by the jury.”

So, it appears that if an SRO uses force to intercede in a situation, whether or not that use of force was justified may need to be settled in a court of law. Some law enforcement officers say the new law restricts the use of most physical restraints. And, if force is used, the situation must rise to the level of preventing bodily harm or death. When decisions about whether or not to utilize physical force must sometimes be made in a matter of seconds, that can be very difficult.

This is an example of how much influence one single word can have when writing legislation. The previous language stated that physical force may be used “to restrain a student OR to prevent bodily harm or death.” The new version removes the word “or,” so now it reads: “to restrain a student to prevent bodily harm or death.” To me, that change in wording means that to prevent “bodily harm or death” is the only time force can be used. What about situations where a student is damaging property or causing a disturbance?

When these questions were first raised, it appeared there was a good possibility of the governor calling a special session to address the situation quickly as schools were going back into session. But then a group of 44 DFL legislators signed onto a letter saying they did not support a special session and wanted the revised statute left as-is. That lessened the probability of being called back to address the problem.

And here is where politics enters the situation: When a governor calls for a special session, the rules are usually suspended so the legislation can be acted on quickly. That takes a super majority of 90 votes in the Minnesota House and 45 in the Senate. Even if all Republicans in both bodies voted in the affirmative, which they have said they would, it would take additional votes from DFL members to suspend the rules. And with 44 of them saying they wouldn’t support that, it’s not clear if the votes necessary to suspend the rules are there.

In addition, over the weekend, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association announced new guidance from the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board making it clear that SRO conduct could result in serious sanctions to licensure. It also recommends that, until the Legislature clarifies the situation, members check on options to “not work any assignment under a school district’s contractual agreement.” It adds that each case is “fact-specific” so there’s no guarantee there would or would not be licensing sanctions imposed.