Other’s Opinion: Find a fix to aid cops in schools

Published 5:34 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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Minneapolis Star Tribune. February 16

Some want school resource officers in their buildings, and the Legislature needs to help.

Last fall, an estimated 40 or so Minnesota police chiefs and sheriffs pulled SROs (school resource officers) from school buildings because they believed a change in statute increased officer liability. To address that issue, DFL lawmakers expected to move quickly to modify the law this year.

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Public hearings were held this week and more are expected next week as the proposed bill was unexpectedly laid over in the Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee due to pushback during those sessions.

Lawmakers should reach a compromise earlier rather than later in this session. Schools and law enforcement agencies need good guidance to determine their participation in the SRO program.

The proposed House bill offers a reasonable way forward. It would allow the officers to use reasonable restraints (including prone restraints) on students, but would require the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to establish a training program for SROs. That training would include sessions on juvenile brain development and working with students with disabilities and those in special education.

It would also create a model policy to outline SRO responsibilities to make sure they don’t handle discipline problems that school staff should address.

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, is an author of the bill. He told an editorial writer that it is important to continue holding hearings so that all stakeholders can be heard.

“This is the process,” he said. “We’re doing our job by listening and making modifications as we go … . There are multiple stakeholders, and we’re bringing them together in hearings to work on compromises and a framework for what officers may and may not do. Ultimately, it’s about doing what’s best for students.”

School district staff had been banned from using prone restraints on students with disabilities since 2015. But as part of the sweeping 2023 education bill, the definition of school employees was expanded to include SROs, and the ban was expanded to include all students. To some law enforcement agencies, that change altered the reasonable force standard so that officers could no longer use some methods to restrain unruly students.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board has argued that a legislative fix is needed. In our view, SROs can be a helpful, valued part of school life. In a perfect world, SROs would help anticipate problems before they arise and develop the relationships necessary to be able to defuse difficult situations without force. But that’s not always the case.

At the same time, it’s understandable why some schools or districts have opted not to have SROs in their buildings. Some educators, community members and DFL lawmakers believe student restraints should be banned because they are more likely to be used on students of color. They think eliminating the use of prone restraints would help close disciplinary disparities between students of color and their white peers.

But for some schools and districts that want SROs in their buildings, legislative assistance is needed. And law enforcement agencies that want to participate should be able to do so without fear of being held liable when they take appropriate action to protect the safety of students and staff.

“The goal is to have our students safe as they go back into school,” Department of Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson said during a hearing this week. “The path to get there is likely going to make stakeholders if not all just a little bit unhappy.”