Minn. official’s interpretation of student restraint law draws more confusion over SRO programs

The Hennepin County attorney’s interpretation of the student restraint law “puts us back to where we were roughly two weeks ago, Minn. Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Jeff Potts said

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By Eder Campuzano
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty has sown fresh confusion over the fate of school resource officer programs a week after Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison offered a clarification intended to settle the issue.

While Ellison said school resource officers may restrain students if they’re breaking the law, Moriarty on Wednesday gave law enforcement officials under her jurisdiction a different interpretation.

The upshot of Moriarty’s letter, first reported by KARE 11 and obtained by the Star Tribune, is that school resource officers should only restrain students if they pose the risk of physical threat to themselves or others. That’s the same authority that bus drivers or other school employees currently hold.

“This statutory change indicates that the legislature wants SROs aligned with school personnel in terms of the tools used to interact with youth in schools,” Moriarty wrote.

Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said Moriarty’s interpretation of the student restraint law “puts us back to where we were roughly two weeks ago.”

That’s when Minnesota Republicans and several law enforcement officials pushed Gov. Tim Walz to order the Legislature into a special session to amend the law. House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, renewed that call in response to Moriarty’s letter.

“Waiting until next session — six months into the school year — to even consider making changes is not acceptable,” Demuth said in a statement. “House Republicans are ready to hold hearings and develop a bipartisan fix that puts the safety of our students and teachers first.”

Late last week, several associations representing Minnesota law enforcement officials gave members the go-ahead to reinstate school resource officer programs. That was based on Ellison’s assurances that police stationed in schools would not be held to a different standard than their colleagues when it came to enforcing the law and that legislators would clarify language in state law to that effect next year.

Still, Hennepin County law enforcement officials wanted to hear directly from the top attorney in their jurisdiction, Potts said, and asked Moriarty to weigh in.

Hennepin County police chiefs “know they can ask [Moriarty] questions directly and seek her guidance, and that the county attorney will be direct and honest in response, even as they recognize we cannot provide their departments with legal advice,” Moriarty’s office said in a statement.

Anoka-Hennepin school district spokesman Jim Skelly said officials there are still meeting with law enforcement agencies to determine what next steps might be.

“It’s up to each department to make its own decision and we want to be good partners in that,” Skelly said.

The Anoka County Attorney’s Office has said it will use Ellison’s interpretation of the restraint law when it considers lawsuits filed against officers. The difference in opinion makes it difficult to find a uniform policy in a district that has schools in different jurisdictions.

Police departments have varied in their reactions in the days since state and county officials clarified stances on the student restraint law. Bloomington Police Chief Booker Hodges, who expanded the school resource officer program at the start of this academic year, said he’s staying the course in light of Moriarty’s guidance.

Still, he’s concerned that attorneys at the state and county level differ in their interpretation of the law.

“We need our legal folks to work in partnership with each other,” Hodges said. “And obviously that’s not happening right now. That creates confusion for our folks.”

In Prior Lake, which is in Scott County, City Manager Jason Wedel said: “We are not returning our SRO until the law is changed.”

Star Tribune staff writer Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.

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