Republicans call for special session to repeal physical restraint ban in schools

By: - August 30, 2023 4:44 pm

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, at a Capitol press conference surrounded by law enforcement and Republican lawmakers on Aug. 30, 2023. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota Republicans sent a letter to DFL Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday urging him to call a special legislative session after numerous law enforcement agencies pulled officers from schools because of a new law that restricts officers from using certain types of physical restraints on students.

House and Senate Republicans, flanked by law enforcement leaders during a Wednesday news conference, said the large education bill passed by Democrats earlier this year has created confusion among police and opened them up to potential lawsuits if they use any amount of physical force in certain situations. 

Under the law change, police officers assigned to schools — called school resource officers (SROs) — cannot use prone restraints, meaning placing a student in a face-down position.

In addition, the law says they cannot “inflict 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, or abdomen; or results in straddling a pupil’s torso.”

Officers working in schools may use these kinds of restraints, however, “to prevent imminent bodily harm or death to the student or to another.” 

Republicans say it’s a problem if a school resource officer can only intervene in a conflict once it escalates to the point of there being imminent bodily harm.

“I want to know that there is a school employee that can step in before we are talking about bodily harm or death with one of our students or one of our staff,” said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. 

The law changes only apply to officers who have contracts with school districts, so officers who are called to the school aren’t bound by the new restrictions. That means officers employed by the same law enforcement agency could be bound by different use of force policies. 

At least seven districts announced that they won’t have SROs at the beginning of the school year because of the law, according to the Republicans’ letter to Walz. Rochester Public Schools, however, affirmed that it will keep officers in its schools.

On Tuesday, Walz on WCCO Radio said a special session regarding the new law change wasn’t needed at this time.

“Those officers, we need to make sure that they and the students are safe, but we also need to make sure that we’re not using excessive force to break up a fight, and I think that was the intent of the law,” Walz said.

Shortly after the press conference, House and Senate DFL education committee chairs released a statement saying Walz’s administration “is working diligently to ensure districts and law enforcement have the guidance they need to do their jobs effectively.”

The DFL education chairs, Sen. Mary Kunesh of New Brighton, Sen. Steve Cwodzinski of Eden Prairie, Rep. Cheryl Youakim of Hopkins and Rep. Laurie Pryor of Minnetonka, did not immediately respond to the Reformer’s questions about whether they believed the law needed to be changed at all.

School districts reported over 10,000 physical holds during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Over 2,000 of those were students with disabilities. 

The Department of Education defines a physical hold as interventions intended to limit a child’s movement, but it doesn’t track how many of those are prone holds.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison issued an opinion last week clarifying the law, and he noted that reasonable force may be used to prevent bodily harm or death. What is considered “reasonable” force varies on a case-by-case basis, Ellison said in his opinion.

The League of Minnesota Cities, which insures all but nine cities in the state, issued guidance on Monday about the new changes in a memo outlining some scenarios where the use of force is lawful.

For example, officers are not allowed to physically stop a student who is throwing lunch trays on the floor and shouting, according to the League of Minnesota Cities. Officers would be able to use force, however, if a student is breaking glass with a metal bar because it could result in physical harm, according to the League of Minnesota Cities’ analysis. 

“​​The authority to use force for the sole purpose of restraining a student has been removed from the law,” the memo states. “Thus, force cannot be used where the only justification is to control the behavior of a student who is damaging property, causing a disturbance, or is acting out in a way that does not pose a threat of death or bodily harm.”

Mendota Heights Police Chief Kelly McCarthy said she believes the many cities will follow the League of Minnesota Cities’ guidance since it’s their insurance provider.

McCarthy, former chair of the Minnesota Peace Officer Training and Standards Board, said she believes panic around the law change is political.

“I think the hysteria is partisan,” McCarthy said.

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, said he and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, drafted a bipartisan bill that would repeal the new restraint language. 

“We’re asking for the governor’s help … before school starts,” Duckworth said. “This is timely. This is urgent. It’s unacceptable … to wait six months or more to solve an issue that has immediately impacted school districts.”

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.