With recent attention given to legislative changes prohibiting the use of certain restraints on children in schools, it's important to understand the good and sound reasons for these changes.
Prone restraint is dangerous and has resulted in injury and death for children in schools. In fact, two years ago, Minnesota banned its use in prisons and jails. Our office, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, represents children with disabilities on school issues through our Disability Law Center, and we have advocated for years for the reduction of the use of physical restraints on children in schools.
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This is for several reasons. One, such restraints often hurt kids or make things worse — we have had clients who come home with bruises or develop very negative associations with school because of being put in physical restraints at school. Two, they're not usually as effective as other strategies, like de-escalation or positive behavioral supports. And finally, every time we've gotten statewide data on the use of restraints the data has shown significant racial disparities in which children are frequently subject to restraints. We are grateful for the Minnesota Legislature's attention to reducing the use of restraints in schools.
Law enforcement agencies have been vocal about how they see these changes affecting the work of school resource officers in schools. An Aug. 31 commentary ("The importance of SROs in our schools") praised the benefits of SROs in schools, but the research is not clear that SROs enhance student safety. [Opinion editor's note: The Star Tribune Editorial Board also weighed in on the issue Sept. 3, with "Clarify rules to get officers back in school."]
According to a University of Connecticut report, "[t]here is extremely limited evidence on the effectiveness of SROs in deterring violence," while a University of Florida study reports that some students report feeling safer with an SRO, while other students do not. A recent report notes that the "largest, most rigorous study of SROs found that their presence increased the number of weapons detected and decreased the number of fights within schools but had no effect on gun-related incidents," and instead "the presence of SROs was associated with increased prevalence of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals and student arrests," which were consistently larger for Black students and students with disabilities.
Meanwhile, the number of school counselors per student is decreasing, even though more counselors per student has been demonstrated to improve academic performance and reduce disciplinary infractions.
Importantly, most of the SRO activities lauded as helpful are not actually prohibited under the new laws, such as building relationships, de-escalating incidents, responding to medical emergencies, and minor incidents like parking lot accidents. Similarly, many of the claims from law enforcement agencies about what is permitted under the new laws don't line up with the text of the changes and recent guidance from Minnesota's attorney general: Reasonable force is allowed when there's risk of bodily harm or death.
If SROs are going to fulfill the kind of relationship-building role that some see as their benefit, it's especially essential that they not use dangerous restraint tactics and that they use force only when necessary to stop harm. Law enforcement tactics for general use in the field are, with rare exception, simply not appropriate for children in schools. Limiting the use of force to when there's a risk of bodily harm or death prioritizes everyone's safety. If schools and law enforcement agencies decide to have an established partnership, it makes sense for there to be limits on what officers can do in schools as part of that partnership, leaving more conventional field policing to other officers.
Schools should be safe and supportive learning environments for children, and baseline limits on the uses of dangerous restraints and unnecessary use of force will help keep all students safe.
Maren Hulden is a supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid's Disability Law Center.