DFL lawmakers offer a fix on rules around school officers restraining students

Published 10:59 pm Wednesday, February 7, 2024

By Elizabeth Shockman and Dana Ferguson

Minnesota DFLers are laying out a proposal they say will clarify lingering issues left over from last session around the controversial use of prone restraint techniques to subdue students in schools.

The proposed legislative fix would keep the ban on school employees using holds that restrict students’ ability to breathe or communicate distress, except “to prevent bodily harm or death.”

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But it would let school resource officers or security personnel employed by districts use those restraints and exempt them from liability. Concerns over the current law led some police departments to pull their officers from schools.

DFLers said Wednesday they finalized the proposed changes after several closed-door meetings with police and student safety groups. Lawmakers are set to hold hearings on Monday and Tuesday next week at the Capitol.

Republicans, who pressed for months for fixes on the legislation, said they were glad to see the issue come up for a hearing but stopped short of endorsing the bill.

“The bill that we will pass will clarify that school resource officers are law enforcement officers, and that the work that they do in school is not as a teacher, making sure somebody turns in their homework. But as a law enforcement officer,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told MPR News on Wednesday.

The DFL controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office. Hortman said her caucus is “in alignment on the change.”

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association said it’s currently reviewing the language. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association didn’t immediately comment on the bill before this story was published on Wednesday afternoon, citing a need to continue reviewing the language.

The groups had raised concerns about liability in times when an officer must react to scenes where a student could be causing serious damage to property but don’t quite meet the threshold laid out in September by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison that sought to clarify how officers or staff can step in if someone is at risk of injury or death.

Republicans echoed those concerns and urged Democrats to call a special session to strike the law altogether. Gov. Tim Walz opposed the efforts to call a special session to consider a change but said he would work with DFL lawmakers and affected parties on a policy update. DFL leaders last fall committed to take up the issue early in the legislative session.

Defining a school resource officer

DFLers carrying the bill said in a statement that the new bill language provided “clarity law enforcement agencies and school districts sought last fall.”

“This bill brings together educators, law enforcement and advocates to strike a balance between safety and rights, ensuring every child has access to a world-class education in a secure and supportive environment,” said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, who is lead author of the bill in the House and co-chairs the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus.

The proposed change creates a statutory definition of school resource officer. It also lays out a Peace Officer Standards and Training Board model policy that includes minimum standards for districts contracting with school resource officers.

Training would need to include education on childhood brain development and trauma, de-escalation techniques, mental health crisis response and legal standards on the detention, discipline and arrest of students in schools.

Officers stationed in schools would need to complete training before June 1, 2025. And law enforcement agencies with school resource officer programs would need to develop and implement new policies by Dec. 1, 2025.

The bill’s authors said the proposed solution was something they’d put time into over the last few months — an approach Frazier said he hoped would help get the bill over the finish line with support from fellow DFL-ers.

“I think people are really happy about the … intentional way that we’ve engaged on this. And I think we’re gonna go through the hearing process, and members are going to get to speak and, and share their opinions about where things are. And I’m looking forward to that, when we start next week,” Frazier said.

In a statement, Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, said he was “genuinely happy to see that Democrats are finally joining us and admitting that the law they passed last year needs to be fixed.”

He called for “open and transparent” bill hearings and for changes to the law to be passed as quickly as possible.