-Advertisement-

Deep Dive: How Legislators and Law Enforcement Are Divided on Using Force on Students

"Diversity in Politics" coverage is made possible by Women Winning and Vote Run Lead.

After some statewide voices expressed confusion about the 2023 legislation that would prohibit the use of force on school children, the 2024 legislation has included another discussion to clarify and amend the law. HF3489, led by Rep. Cedrick Frazier (D–43A), defines the duties and training of school resource officers (SRO).

Frazier opened recent discussion by saying, “This bill specifically addresses prone restraints. The reason we’re having this conversation is because we had one of the most tragic situations happen in the state of Minnesota, when we had the killing of George Floyd by former officer Chauvin. And many folks, when they envision a prone restraint, they are envisioning that incident — that interaction that took the life of George Floyd. This bill will address when prone restraints can be used, in what manner, and it provides clear guidance on that so there will be no questions moving forward.”

He indicated the bill also provides “a clear statutory construct for transparency and accountability that does not exist today. It will provide for mandatory training for folks who go into our SRO programs. We were intentional about being inclusive of the voices in that process. Because what we heard loud and clear from folks is that they didn’t feel heard and they didn’t feel included in the process that took place over the last legislative session.”

The bill language requires school boards and charter school boards to have a contract if they choose to have a school resource officer program and establishes rules related to SRO training and a model policy. The Board of Police Officers, Standards, and Training (POST) would be required to develop policy in consultation with specific groups that include peace officer groups, education groups, and community groups.”

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Willie Jett testified, indicating that he used to work as a school and district administrator and that administrators were responsible for ensuring school and student safety, “including de-escalating situations. However, we occasionally require assistance from our law enforcement partners, specifically school resource officers, if there are significant safety concerns.

“SRO programs, when done well, are rooted in relationships that prioritize the health, safety, and support of young people. This bill ensures that all SROs throughout the state have the training necessary to create these relationships.”

Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson offered details about his background, which included 17 years as a police chief, work in theDepartment of Human Services around child welfare issues — “making sure to keep kids out of the systems” — and supervised SROs in Mounds View school district from 1992 until 2016.

He indicated he supports the bill as a comprehensive proposal to provide free training for law enforcement and school settings, with broad input on policy from Minnesotans. “This policy will cover a lot of topics, but the one I believe will cover the most important [topic] is focusing on building constructive relationships between SROs, students, and educators. This SRO bill also makes it clear that SROs are not allowed to be involved in school discipline. Putting this into law makes that very clear. If a community chooses to have a SRO, this bill will help ensure a higher standard and specialized training. A child deserves a learning environment that is safe, supportive, and healthy. I believe that this bill will help accomplish that.”

Public Voices

Candace Lewis, a senior at Robbinsdale Cooper High School, testified that authority is not conveyed only through relationship, but qualifications. “It’s conflict resolution. It’s the cultural competency, especially for a school that is as diverse as mine. It comes from a place that [needs] people who understand what it’s like to have differences in the world. It’s nice to have people you can talk to [including] with law enforcement, that you usually don’t see.” She said SROs are “very, very necessary for us in our every day.”

Jamvon Rush Reese, a member of the Robbinsdale Cooper High School multicultural advisory committee, added, “Law enforcement and police aren’t going to go away, no matter how negatively we view them. We cannot change [that], but something we can change is the perspective that we have on them. Kids my age see officers as people with a great amount of power, as uniforms, as just a badge. Through the MAC group and through our ability to have interactions with the SROs, I have been able to form a more nuanced view and respect for the law.”

Matt Shaver, policy director of EdAllies (part of the Solutions Not Suspensions Coalition), opposed the legislation. “Prone holds kill kids. Our advocacy is not about whether we believe SROs belong in schools; it’s about whether the State of Minnesota believes holds that kill children belong in schools. We better get things like who, how, and why adults can put their hands on your child, my child, other people’s children. Last year’s legislation was a great start in setting a standard for the use of prone in schools. Unfortunately in the course of stakeholder engagement, we heard directly from law enforcement leadership that if they are not able to use prone in schools they will need to use tasers on kids. So it sounds like there is a need for clarity. Let’s clarify the intent of the law by updating the chokehold ban … to explicitly say that SROs may not use prone restraint in schools unless there is imminent threat of bodily harm or death.”

Patricia Beety, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities, said the League does not advise member cities to take part in SRO programs, “but we do support the authority for cities and school districts to enter into these agreements if the local community desires it.”

Marci Exsted, research assistant with the Minnesota Justice Research Center, said they have conducted research on SROs and BIPOC youth in Minnesota. “Nationally, SROs lack clearly defined roles and have no guidance or legally enforced oversight that’s regulated at the national level,” she said. “Minnesota can really lead the way by cementing best practices and duty of care standards for SROs. Because so many school districts have decided the benefits of SROs outweigh the drawbacks, it’s important that the state set clear guidelines for SRO roles and duties. … Schools should avoid enmeshing students in the criminal legal system for common youth behaviors. Kids should be allowed to make mistakes. Any encounters with the criminal legal system have been shown to create negative educational and social-emotional outcomes for youth.”

She suggested schools need more options to address student issues holistically, using law enforcement as a last resort.

Maren Christenson Hofer, executive director of the Multicultural Autism Action Network, is the parent of a child with a disability. She said “79 children have died from restraint-related fatalities; 38 of those were specifically from prone restraint. This is not a safe procedure. The way the law is written right now, what is being proposed, is it makes an exception for law enforcement and security. We do not believe that any child, under any circumstances, should be subjected to any form of physical holding that restricts or impairs a pupil’s ability to breathe; restricts or impairs a pupil’s ability to communicate distress; places pressure or weight on a pupil’s head, throat, neck, chest, lungs, sternum, diaphragm, back, abdomen, or results in straddling a pupil’s torso. There should be no exception to that for law enforcement.”

Tressa Dykstra, pediatric nurse practitioner in developmental pediatrics, said that folks cannot always see disorders or disabilities that people may have. “We cannot afford to make a mistake when it could result in injury or death to a child,” she said. “Death from prone restraint occurs due to cardiac arrest. Compromised breathing and circulation can stop the heart. Pressure in the neck and chest decreases cardiac output and ventilation until a body can no longer compensate. Children with developmental disabilities are at increased risk of cardiac arrest because of their inability to communicate problems and low muscle tone.

“Another issue is that many children have already experienced violent trauma in the hands of adults who are supposed to keep them safe,” she added. “Traumatized children need our safety and protection when they are in distress.”

Khulia Pringle (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Khulia Pringle, Minnesota State Director of the National Parents Union, and member of the Solutions Not Suspensions Coalition, said, “I am here today because the struggle to keep Black bodies safe is a never-ending duty and a reality.” The SRO exception for prone restraints is “sad, frightening, disappointing. Our elected officials passed ground-breaking legislation last year on all aspects of life. We all gathered and celebrated at the Capitol when the governor signed the omnibus bill. We never thought we would be down this road when the powers that be want the community to understand that somehow school resource officers cannot do their job without being able to use tactics that restrict the airway of children.”

Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a middle school science teacher, said she feels lucky her kids are not darker-skinned. “I didn’t have much to worry about with them. But now I work with at-risk children, BIPOC children, almost 100 percent. Those kids I worry about. I know what I went through due to my melanin in my skin. When you’re dealing with racism, as we do in Minnesota, it is a tough place to be when you’re a person of color. I am against the bill. I don’t think any child should have to witness or experience that trauma.”

Dr. Hannah Lichstinn, Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, “Prone restraints are harmful to children both physically and emotionally. It is my medical opinion that use of a facedown, forcible, prone restraint does limit the ability of a child to breathe. We therefore ask that this committee vote to maintain existing language that restricts prone restraint use by all adults, including law enforcement officers in Minnesota schools.”

Malaika Eban, executive director of the Legal Rights Center, said prone restraints are what the community is concerned about. “The legislation last year said that we want no adults to be able to do that to our kids. That is all we are asking for today.”

Jessica Webster, staff attorney of Legal Aid, also representing the Disability Law Center, said they are strongly opposed to the proposed legislation. “The spirit and intent of last year’s legislation was to ban prone restraint and breath-impacted holds on children in our schools.” Legal Aid does support clarification, she said, but not a removal of the ban on prone restraints.

Susan Montgomery, a Minneapolis parent, said, “My son was abused terribly while going to public school. I truly believe his trials and tribulations today are because of what happened to him when he was younger. For years, when he was receiving special education services as a young Black male, he was put in restraints like air-restrictive holds and other horrible, tortuous acts. Having an SRO will not help the situation, especially if they are biased. It’s important to note that kids like mine were labeled inappropriately.”

Opposition Voices

Imran Ali, general counsel of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said, “The current law is contrary to state and federal law. Force has always been the last option. … We must not act out of passion or ideologies. Rather our decision should be apolitical and rooted in common sense with a proper application of the law.” He said that SROs “want back in [to schools], but are frightened under the current law. Those who are in are worried about what the future is with the law in flux.”

Sean Deringer, Wright County Sheriff, indicated that statistically, schools are asking for law enforcement help because student mental health is a “contributing factor in many of these situations.” He said in the previous school year there were three use-of-force incidents “that may have been questionable, given the parameters of the new law. Based on that data — and several meetings with my county attorney, school administrators, and other stakeholders — I made the difficult decision to keep our SROs in place. I believe that the vast majority of their time is spent building and fostering relationships and being a positive role model within the school setting.”

Rep. Jeff Witte (R–57B) offered an amendment to change the underlying bill with recommendations from law enforcement and cities, such as: “reinstates the ability of school employees to use reasonable force to prevent damage to property, a request that came from educators and school administrators … It authorizes DPS School Safety Center to approve supplemental training courses and it deletes the unnecessary and troublesome model policy mandate that law enforcement does not want. It deletes the requirement that every law enforcement agency with an SRO must adopt a model policy and it deletes licensing sanctions and injunctive relief on law enforcement agencies that do not adopt the model policy. … This DE3 will be a simple fix that will bring clarity and peace of mind and remove the politics and it will return our SROs to schools and it will make our schools a safer place for students, teachers, and staff.”

Rep. Frazier responded, “You described it as a small, easy fix, but it really has some substantive changes to the bill as presented. Mainly it takes away the process to [include] stakeholder voices. What we heard from most folks is that they want to be a part of this conversation, to decide how we can curate a comprehensive system in our schools for safety, for everyone in the schools. It also stops us from creating a uniform system that can be implemented across the state, which provides transparency, consistency, and also accountability.”

Rep. Paul Novtony (R–30B) indicated, “I do believe [the amendment] solves our problems and it gives us a pathway to having a legislative fix that we can all agree on and come to something that really makes sense.”

The amendment did not pass, 9-6.

Dialogue on Current Prone Restraint Status

Rep. Dave Pinto (D–64B) asked the legislative legal staff to clarify the status of the current law in regards to the use of prone restraints by SROs. Legal counsel Ben Johnson responded that certain holds, ,including prone restraints, cannot be used by teachers or other school officials, but there are exceptions made in situations “where it is necessary to use force, to restrain a student to prevent bodily harm or death to the student or another.”

He noted that as the Attorney General offered in clarification last fall, “The only limit on use of force is the standard of reasonableness. There are no specific holds that are prohibited.”

Pinto asked, “Under current law, if no bill goes forward, no change at all, they would still be able to use prone restraint when there is a situation to prevent bodily harm.”

Johnson replied: “In cases where there is bodily harm, under the Attorney General’s interpretation, yes, there is an authorization to use prone restraints and those other restrictive holds to prevent bodily harm or death.”

Pinto responded, “I want to make sure it’s not misread that this bill would somehow repeal a current law relating to this because. In fact, prone restraints are not prohibited, despite the language here under the law.”

Rep. Athena Hollins (D–66B) asked Rep. Frazier, “It is my understanding that there is no uniformity across the state with how the law that we passed in 2023 would be interpreted?”

He indicated that it is true that there is no uniformity, which is why there is a need for a model policy.

Rep. Walter Hudson (R-30A) said: ‘We find ourselves in a really unusual dynamic here tonight, where there are a lot of people who came to testify and submitted letters of testimony who are on my side of this bill; they opposed the bill. What this bill does is take the language … out of the hands of this body and the legislature and puts it in the purview of the POST Board, who get to make what Rep. Frazier just referred to as ‘model policy.’”

This means, Hudson indicated, that people will get their say, not in the public forum at the legislature, but through influencing “activist friends at the POST Board. … They’ll get to make up any rule they want and impose it under force of potentially losing licenses. You should applaud Rep. Frazier for accomplishing exactly what you want through means that don’t involve the consent of the governed.”

Rep. Novotny added, “The problem we have on this side of the aisle is, we live in Realville.” He said activists at the testimony represent issues related to suspensions and school-to-prison pipelines. He said legislature should deal with a fix that doesn’t lead to law enforcement having to answer to a POST board.

Rep. Frazier concluded the discussion by saying, “This is a legislative action. It is one that will include voices that we don’t typically hear from. We continue to have these conversations, but we’re not talking to each other and we’re not hearing each other. This bill will create that process for us to do that.”

The bill was laid over for further discussion.

 

Related Reading

UPDATED 2-13: Policing Safety in Schools?