While Walz welcomes students to school, questions remain about special session

By: - September 5, 2023 2:05 pm

Gov. Tim Walz and Department of Education Commissioner Willie Jett (left) greeted Oak Grove Elementary students in Bloomington on Sept. 5, 2023. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday morning gave high-fives and fist bumps to Bloomington’s Oak Grove Elementary students who were walking into school, celebrating the start of the 2023-2024 school year.

The DFL governor touted the state’s new universal school meals program: Students will be able to receive free school breakfast and lunch every school day regardless of income, part of a suite of tools passed by the Legislature and signed by Walz this year seeking to help students catch up after two years of uneven learning during the pandemic. 

Students are coming back to school less than two weeks after the state released test results showing less than half of Minnesota students met or exceeded grade level standards in reading and math; scores remain well below pre-pandemic levels.

After greeting the students, many of whom were confused — “Who’s that guy?” one asked — Walz answered questions from the media about a looming question obscuring the day’s excitement: Will he call a special session to resolve questions about a new law banning physical restraints in schools?

Numerous law enforcement agencies over the past few weeks pulled officers from their local schools because of a new law that bans using prone restraints on students, meaning placing a student in a face-down position.

Republicans last week called for a special session to change the law, arguing that the new restriction has created confusion among police and has opened them up to potential lawsuits if they use any amount of physical force in certain situations. Police critics say they should be able to do the job without using aggressive tactics on children.

Last week, Walz said he didn’t believe a special session was needed, but he appears to be waffling. He said Tuesday he is open to calling a special session to change the law, acknowledging that some schools and police groups have asked for clarification. He said his office is having conversations with officers and schools to reach a middle ground to ensure everyone feels safe.

“The spirit of this thing is all of us want our buildings safe, and all of us want to make sure that excessive force is not used on our students,” Walz said. “I think finding that middle ground shouldn’t be all that difficult.”

In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd but also the sharp increase in crime in 2020 and 2021, Walz has often been confronted with the complex political challenge of balancing Minnesotans’ concerns with both violent crime and civil rights violations.

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, last week said he and Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, drafted a bipartisan bill that would repeal the new restraint language. Walz on Tuesday morning said he hasn’t seen the bill, but he will take a look at it.

Only the governor can call a special session, but once convened, only the Legislature can adjourn it. Which in practice often means extended negotiations and an agreement before special sessions. 

During his first term, Walz called multiple special sessions to address COVID-19-related issues. He has yet to call a special session in his second term.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison recently issued an opinion 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.

Walz on Tuesday said a legislative solution is possible.

“I’m just trying to find a solution. I don’t think it has to be … complicated because the biggest thing is that we’ve got trusted adults in the building doing the work,” he said.

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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.