Minnesota legislation passed in 2023 that limits the ability of school resource officers (SROs), security guards, or contracted police officers to put students into a prone hold — putting a student face down on the ground and applying weight to their head, throat, neck, or chest to restrict their ability to breathe. The legislation allows “reasonable force” to be used only in situations when a student is posing a risk of bodily harm to themselves or someone else. A forceful hold would not be allowed, for example, if a student is running away, behaving disrespectfully, or damaging property.
After George Floyd was killed by police using a prone hold, Minneapolis schools canceled their contracts with police officers. Prone restraints have not been allowed on students with disabilities since 2015. The law is now expanded to include protection to children in all school districts.
Lawmakers who support the legislation point out that other safety measures have been passed to protect students, including the restriction of firearms, free school meals, and funding for mental health and behavioral interventions. Rep. Laurie Pryor (DFL-Minnetonka) chairs the House Education Policy Committee and said the legislation was in part created “in a way that really respects the fact that they’re young, they’re children.”
A 2023 legislative report noted that there were 10,091 physical holds statewide during the 2021-22 school year (although these were not all prone holds), which is down from 18,834 in 2017-18.
A CBS news report quoted the Rogers police chief, who said his department can safely do its job under the new law. Other police and sheriff departments indicate they cannot do their job properly without the ability to apply the force required. Some school districts are opting to stop using SROs.
Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt said in a press conference that the new litigation is “ambiguous” and “incompatible with sworn duties” of a police officer. House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth said during the press conference, “This is about allowing our school resource officers to use the de-escalation tools that they’re trained in.”
Minnesota’s Republican Party chair David Hann called for a special legislative session to discuss rolling back the legislation, saying in a press conference: “Our schools are less safe today due to the Minnesota DFL’s extreme, single-party control, and their zealous anti-police agenda has put students, teachers, and staff in danger.”
Cinnamon Janzer, a Minneapolis-based writer, interviewed students in 2022 about the absence of SROs from Minneapolis schools for the national Youth Today publication. A former student representative on the Minneapolis school board, Kennedy Rance, from Patrick Henry High School, told her: “When SROs were present, a lot of students said it made them uncomfortable and that they wanted another way, someone who wasn’t law enforcement, who wasn’t carrying,” she said, adding that mental health disruptions among students have become a bigger concern.
Janzer also quoted Emi Gacaj at Southwest High School: “I feel like the biggest threat to safety comes from students having mental health issues. The biggest thing we can do to keep our schools safe is to fund them and make sure that students are feeling okay, accepted and welcomed.”
The concern raised by some in law enforcement tends to be whether SROs and contracted police officers can be held liable if they use unreasonable force in a situation, by not de-escalating with other techniques. Situations develop quickly, and it tends to be juries who decide if an officer acted unreasonably, as was the case with George Floyd.
New Details (as of September 19, 2023)
The Minnesota Youth Council indicated in a September 18 statement that “all students have a right to a school environment that is safe and welcoming.” In response to “a group of lawmakers and Chiefs of Police in Minnesota calling for the Governor to call a special session to address new guidance around the conduct of Student Resource Officers in schools, the youth leaders of the Minnesota Youth Council stand strongly in support of the language on school staff use of restraint methods as introduced and passed in the 2023-24 legislative session.”
The Council was created by the legislature to give young people a voice in providing guidance to state representatives and the governor about issues impacting young people, and indicates that it “does not support the reopening or amending of this law,” partly because of how significantly different the experience of force by security officers in schools is for students of color compared to their white peers.
Solutions Not Suspensions is a coalition of students, families, community members, and organizations “committed to changing policies, practices, and mindsets in order to end racial disparities in discipline and foster positive school climates for all students.” On August 29, the group also made a statement in favor of the changes to Minnesota law regarding the restraints used in schools.
“Until this point, despite being prohibited in jails, dangerous procedures such as the prone restraint were allowed to be used on children in schools.” The group indicated that other proven practices exist to address behavioral challenges, and that “practices to deescalate the situation that don’t involve dangerous uses of force are more effective. Most of the time, children who are presenting with challenging behaviors are doing so because they have needs that are not being met. … This is particularly the case coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. … Our students need support, not to be subject to dangerous restraints. … We owe it to them to invest in and implement preventative measures.
The group pointed out that the new Office of Restorative Practices is supporting methods to work with students and others in all of Minnesota’s 87 counties. “We must do this until our instinct returns to ground youth in belonging instead of reacting with punitive isolation and dangerous restraints.”
Said one Solutions Not Suspensions advocate, “if officers feel they cannot do their jobs without using procedures that are prohibited in prisons, maybe those are not the officers we should have in our schools.”
Clarity From Attorney General Keith Ellison (September 5)
Attorney General Keith Ellison recently was asked to deliver a public opinion about this part of the bill, which had originally been introduced at the Minnesota legislature in February, at the request of Education Commissioner Willie Jett, to provide clarity about the legislation. He wrote: “The Legislature did not change the types of reasonable force that school staff and agents are authorized to use in responding to a situation involving a threat of bodily harm or death.”
Ellison was asked to clarify the legislation in a call to mostly parents and educators that took place over Labor Day weekend. (Minnesota Women’s Press was invited to attend.) He said, “If you look at all of the changes together, basically they say that if a student is not acting in a threatening manner to ‘bodily injury or death,’ using prone restraint is not allowed.”
Ellison has heard interpretations from others about the law saying that a student cannot be restrained if they are in a physical fight, or it is no longer legal to arrest a youth, but that is not true, he told the group.
“What is true is if there’s a bodily injury, or threat of bodily injury or death, you have the right to use reasonable force. You can use techniques to gain order, like verbal commands, and even put an arm on a kid, but what you can’t do is block an airway when they’re not creating a violent, dangerous situation.”
“If the kid fights,” he continued, “you can arguably say that it is a threat to bodily injury, and you can escalate the reasonable use of force.”
Participants on the call said parents — including those with disabled children and those with mental health issues — and youth voices need to be added to the conversation, since this law was designed to protect rights to safety from force to youth who are disproportionately affected.
Michael Smith, a member of the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights, was on the call and indicated that when he was young, there were hall monitors and mentors available, not officers carrying guns. “We had people who made us feel comfortable and could provide us with resources. There are so many youth coming from a multitude of different spaces, that if they had true resources, that would alleviate a lot. Kids are going through a lot. I have a 16- and 19-year old son. We’ve had some very honest conversations. I was dumbfounded by some of the things I heard, as a father who is very invested. We have to get to the root of everything that we do.”
Ellison was on the call to clarify the rules, and made it clear that he was not there to advocate any positions. After he left the call, the participants began to discuss: What is it that will address the true fears and safety needs of our children in schools?
This will be an ongoing conversation that we continue to follow in our “Re-Imagining Public Safety” series.