Student and parent advocates long opposed to punitive measures in schools rose on Thursday to defend a controversial new state law on student restraints — and to say "no" to a possible special legislative session on the issue.
"The law is good as it is," said Josh Crosson, executive director of the education advocacy group EdAllies.
He spoke on behalf of the Solutions Not Suspensions Coalition, which held a State Capitol news conference intending to give voice to families and students in the debate over new restrictions on the types of physical holds that police and others can place on kids.
Police departments and sheriff's offices have pulled school resource officers (SROs) from schools as a result, prompting Republican lawmakers to call for a repeal of the legislation and DFL Gov. Tim Walz to say he was open to a special session to clarify the law.
Advocates said the state simply extended to all students a ban on "prone restraints" that was enacted 10 years ago for students with disabilities — unless the maneuver is needed to "prevent bodily harm or death to another," the law states.
"This is a political hissy fit and Walz should know better and do better to protect our kids," said Khulia Pringle, Minnesota state director for the National Parents Union and a longtime critic of discipline disparities in the St. Paul Public Schools.
Top Democratic leaders haven't closed the door to a special session to tackle the issue. But MPR News reported that 44 rank-and-file DFL legislators in the House and Senate signed on to a letter on Thursday opposing calls to return to the Capitol to repeal the law.
They accused some groups of misrepresenting what the new law does and argued such "extreme punishments" don't belong in schools.
"Every child deserves to be safe in school. These types of restraints are dangerous. They should be outlawed," Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) Thursday in response to the letter she signed. "The law is clear. Going into special session to repeal this law is unacceptable."
Republican House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth of Cold Spring said in a statement that it's "incredibly disappointing" to see so many Democrats signed on to the letter. She encouraged Walz to work with Republicans to pass a possible fix.
"If the Governor is truly serious about solving this problem and making sure our schools are safe, it's time to bring Republicans to the table," she said. "A bipartisan fix is the only way forward, and House Republicans are ready and waiting to get this fixed and make sure SROs can return to their posts as soon as possible."
Confusion over the law centers on the definition of reasonable force and whether school resource officers are allowed to restrain students if it's not obvious that they're about to hurt themselves or someone else.
In an advisory opinion, state Attorney General Keith Ellison wrote that "the Legislature did not change the types of reasonable force that school staff and agents are authorized to use in responding to a situation involving a threat of bodily harm or death. Of course, what force is 'reasonable' is not defined in law and is determined on a case-by-case basis."
Crosson said that he believes SROs still have the power to physically separate students who are fighting — as one example.
But some law enforcement officials across the state say they believe the provision restricting the use of restraints ties an officer's hands if a student is breaking windows or committing another crime that doesn't necessarily pose a physical threat. They say that opens officers up to lawsuits if they act too quickly, or could force officers to wait until altercations between students spiral out of control.
Last week, state Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, put forth draft legislation that would repeal the ban of officers' use of the prone position in schools. He is open, however, to preserving a related requirement to record how often restraints are used in schools.
Rachel Aplikowski, media relations director for the Senate Republican Caucus, wrote in an e-mail Thursday that without such data, the law appears to be "a solution in search of a problem."
A growing number of law enforcement agencies have pulled out of schools in response to the bans on physical holds. SRO programs have been suspended indefinitely in the Moorhead, Wayzata, St. Cloud and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage districts.
In some districts, such as Anoka-Hennepin and Robbinsdale, police still are stationed in some schools, but not in others because those districts have schools in different cities with officers operating under separate contracts.
Law enforcement agencies will continue to station officers in the South Washington County, Bloomington, Rochester, Minnetonka and Lakeville districts. In some cases, police are expanding their on-campus presence.
At the news conference, Ali Alowonle, a parent, educator and community organizer, said it was time to stand by the law and to not waver due to "scare tactics, loss of support from police and fears around not winning the next election." Restraining kids puts both students and SROs in "fight or flight mode," she said, and it is traumatic.
She also noted it was the first week of school in most districts.
"This should be a time for joy and excitement," she said. "Instead, here we are fighting for the lives of our children once again."