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Our View: School officer spat is confounding

For those trying to get a foothold of understanding on the issues that have arisen over a new law regarding use of restraint by police officers hired by Minnesota schools, good luck.

Whether it is mere posturing or naked politics that are muddying the waters, the losers in this debate are students at the schools and the parents who want to be sure everyone at school is safe when it comes to conflicts.

We did a lot of searching for information on the exact issue that has some police departments pulling officers out of schools because they say officers are no longer able to fully perform their jobs or are subject to lawsuits, due to the law that allows officers and staff to only “restrain a student to prevent bodily harm or death.”

Republicans are siding with law enforcement in asking for more clarity in the law, demanding a special session of the legislature to make that so. Democrats, who control all branches of government in the state, are saying the law is what it is, and aren’t willing to reconvene over it.

Few have been able to reasonably articulate just what the clarification would entail. We watched an hourlong Republican news conference, heard sheriffs and other law enforcement leaders on radio talk shows and in news stories. There has been a lot of hue and cry but not enough clarity on the clarity that is sought, aside from a reversion to the old rules.

The calls for a law change continue even after an opinion from the state attorney’s office and a missive from the League of Minnesota Cities cleared up some of the issues floating around.

We get why the new law was put into place. No student should be subject to “prone” restraint that restricts breathing or the ability to communicate distress. It’s the same law instituted several years ago for students with disabilities. Many of these prone holds, law enforcement rightly points out, are already banned in regular police work.

The real fear, from what we have been able to read between the lines, is that officers in schools will not be able to restrain, or even handcuff, students who are disruptive but not necessarily at a threat level of “bodily harm or death.”

Officers who are called into a school have the same rules of restraint they observe on the street. Yes, it makes no sense that in some cases a school resource officer would need to call 911 in order to restrain a student who perhaps won’t leave a school after being deemed a trespasser or who is causing damage that isn’t threatening life and limb.

We applaud the restraint of the Cloquet Police Department to wait out the back-and-forth and not pull the SRO from the Cloquet schools. They aren’t alone. A very small percentage of school districts have lost officers in reaction to the new law.

Cloquet police chief Derek Randall said he wants clarification, and “vagueness” removed from the bill.

“The new legislation creates two different operating standards for our SRO officer,” he said, adding that the state has already seen incidents where “an SRO has been in the dilemma of, ‘Do I intervene and potentially be charged with a crime, or stand and watch someone commit a crime(s) against another person?’”

If that clarity doesn’t come, Cloquet may have to resort to a workaround that some cities and counties are employing, in which the SROs are breaking school contracts and working under the non-school entity, meaning they would be working under department rules and not education laws.

We all want clarity. And we’d like it sooner than later.

Of all the information we sifted through on the issue, we found this passage from the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust most useful:

“These new limitations are apt to require some substantial rethinking of how SROs and other officers who would be deemed agents of a school district will intervene in situations involving students. Using force in circumstances that do not present a threat of death or bodily harm is no longer an option. Persuasion and de-escalation skills will be at a premium. Agencies and officers may wish to consult with other professionals, such as special education and mental health personnel, who are trained in non-forceful intervention. Officers may also wish to consult with school staff on how they will work together to manage disruptive but non-dangerous behaviors without force.”

Confusion over legislative lingo aside, with years of restorative practices in Carlton County and the Cloquet schools, we expect the district and its SRO are already implementing the practices suggested by the League.

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