‘We’re moving forward positively:’ APD, APS work to adapt to new law impacting SROs

Published 7:00 am Saturday, September 2, 2023

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A new Minnesota law that has recently gone into effect has state law enforcement agencies considering, and in some cases, removing school resource officers (SROs) from school hallways.

Part of a sweeping education bill passed in this latest session, the law prohibits SROs from using some physical holds utilized by law enforcement within schools. This includes the use of prone restraints.

Members of law enforcement fear the new limitations will prevent SROs from intervening in situations of physical threats or threats to property. It also planted confusion in how law enforcement is supposed to approach such cases.

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“It opens up some issues that I’m not sure what this was meant to correct,” said Austin Police Department Police Chief David McKichan, who explained that under the new law, restraint only applies to SROs, not for officers coming in from outside district buildings. “We certainly want (SROs) in the schools. They want to be there, but we’ve gone over several pieces of guidance with them. There will be times where we have to leverage to call in patrol staff just to take the risk away from SROs”

APD contracts out to the Austin Public Schools District to place two officers within the schools, something that has been happening for over 20 years. Despite the new law, both APD and administration within the district are falling back on that long-reaching relationship to continue the partnership.

According to Superintendent Dr. Joey Page, the relationship is part of a broader effort within the schools to maintain student and staff safety.

“I’ll be honest, we have altercations in our schools. It’s not unique to Austin,” Page said, explaining a prevention, intervention and support plan that reaches across the moments before a possible altercation, during and how to prevent it in the future. “We build into those three categories to provide a safe, responsible learning environment, not only for students but for staff.”

Minnesota legislators who were part of passing the law, which was supported by Gov. Tim Walz, say the law is meant to ensure rights and protections for students.

However, many are concerned with how rapid the law was put into effect and openly question who had been brought in on early conversations about the policy, which required a clarification by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison that in some instances that could include bodily harm or death, the use of prone restraints could still be used.

“The threat of bodily harm is what keys that off,” McKichan said. “This is not something that happens often, but you could have something during this school year where you may need to affect taking someone into custody. In that particular situation, we don’t think an SRO wouldn’t be able to handcuff somebody.”

According to a story from Minnesota Public Radio earlier in the week, Anoka, Clay, Hennepin and St. Louis county sheriffs have pulled their presence from schools, along with Champlin, Coon Rapids and Moorhead police departments.

There has been some thought as to whether or not SROs actually make schools safer. In another story from MRP, Metro State University professor James Densley said there wasn’t a lot of data indicating they are preventing violence in schools.

However, McKichan said that many local law enforcement entities, including APD, will continue supporting SROs in the schools, and both McKichan and Page said that SROs are very important to day to day operations of the schools.

On the school side, the SRO officers play an important role that goes outside of any enforcement duties.

“Just being visible and connecting with kids,” Page said. “We’re very lucky to build that relationship with kids. Students see another trusted adult they can go to, share their frustration. It’s just another person to connect with.”

Meanwhile, McKichan said that SROs are important to more than simple law enforcement duties.

“When the schools are in session they are a small city in and of themselves and like any city you have medical emergencies and other things happen,” McKichan said. “It’s just a lot of benefit to me. If we need to take some sort of action in the school, it happens much more quickly. It happens seamlessly. A lot of times, if it’s a minor thing, we’re not sending a patrol officer in.”

Either way, there is a hope for clarification and changes to the law, including calls from Republican legislators who are calling for a special session to address some of these issues, something Walz said he wouldn’t do and meaning that the wait will carry over into the next legislative session, which starts in February.

It heightens frustration within law enforcement, including McKichan, who doesn’t feel like they had a place at the table before the law was enacted.

“When you don’t have a place at the table to talk about it, I think you end up in a situation you have now where suddenly we are faced with this legal change,” he said. “We want the SROs there, we understand the challenges. I would like to see the law reverted back to where it was in so far as the authority it gives to our SROs.”

In the meantime, Austin will continue its arrangement, relying on the current positive relationship between district and police to continue to keep SROs in the hallways.

“We’re really fortunate to have that level of trust and partnership,” Page said. “We’re good to go with the training procedures we have in place. We’re moving forward positively, and will respond to any changing legislation.”