Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
In a welcome development for Minnesota schools and students, law enforcement groups have given the green light for sworn officers to return to their districts following discussions between Gov. Tim Walz's administration, police officials, legislators and the state Attorney General's Office.
Those conversations addressed concerns about a controversial law on student restraints.
That's great news for districts and schools that lost valued school resource officers (SROs) at the beginning of this academic year. Those involved in negotiations should be commended for working together on a solution — albeit a possibly temporary one.
Earlier, some Republican lawmakers had asked the governor to call a special session to repeal or change the law that had been approved during the 2023 session. The Star Tribune Editorial Board supported that idea if it was the only way to clarify the language in the statute. But the parties continued to negotiate in good faith.
The talks resulted in an updated legal opinion from DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison, released Wednesday, that said interpretations that the change in the law restricts SROs and school professionals "from engaging in any physical contact to address non-violent behavior" are incorrect, and that they "simply must avoid the restraints identified" in the new language.
"If a student is misbehaving in a way that does not and will not harm that student or anyone else, professionals in schools still have many tools at their disposal, including other kinds of physical contact," the supplemental opinion reads.
Walz said he recognized the concerns of law enforcement and appreciated the valid questions they raised. He had said earlier that he was "open" to calling the special session if needed.
However, Walz said in a statement that he was "grateful for the Attorney General's binding opinion clarifying that school resource officers can continue to do their jobs effectively," and that he is "committed to further addressing this issue next legislative session and eager to see school resource officers return to schools as soon as possible."
The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST Board), which licenses police officers and has the authority to revoke their credentials, has interpreted Ellison's clarification to say that the new rules don't prohibit school resource officers from using holds and restraints if they're enforcing the law.
As a result of the new guidance from the POST Board — and a tentative vote of confidence from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association — a few law enforcement agencies have sent their officers back into schools. This week, for example, the Blue Earth County Sheriff's office announced that it will reinstate its SROs with two school districts. In a note on social media, that agency said it remains "hopeful" that the 2024 legislature provides more clarity to the statute.
An estimated 40 or so law enforcement agencies across the state had removed officers from SRO positions due to what they perceived as confusion over the new law. Yet most agencies that have SROs in schools maintained and even expanded their SRO program despite the confusion over the change in law.
Still, prior to last week's meetings, some law enforcers' legitimate concern was over whether officers and departments could be held liable if officers needed to restrain students. They worried that POST Board could take action against an officer's license if, under the changed SRO law, an officer's use of force was regarded as unauthorized or unreasonable.
It's unfortunate that schools need SROs in the first place. But effective officers who get to know students and teachers can often address behavioral issues in ways that don't require force, and many students feel safer with them in school hallways and at events.
Though some officers have returned, it remains unclear exactly if or when other agencies might follow. However, based on the guidance and the advisories of law enforcement groups, more of them should renew their programs. They should do so with confidence that the attorney general's opinion is clear and that a more permanent solution will be addressed by lawmakers next session.