Bemidji Police, ISD 31 Update School Resource Officer Policy Following New State Law
With new laws passed in the past legislative session and the removal of a single two-letter word in a statute, school resource officers in Minnesota can now face possible liabilities for using certain restraints. But as some schools across the state are pulling SROs from their halls, the Bemidji School District is working to keep theirs on campus.
For about 20 years, Bemidji Area Schools and the Bemidji Police Department have maintained a strong working relationship through the use of SROs.
“The intention of the SRO program is really to bridge the gap between community and police departments, to allow students to understand that law enforcement is here to help,” said Bemidji School District Superintendent Jeremy Olson. “And also, they serve a function of protection.”
But new state legislation is changing how SROs operate within these schools. Updated policies in Chapter 55 of H.F. 2497 now prohibit the use of prone restraints and in applying pressure or a physical hold above the legs, and the policies affect when use of force can be applied by an SRO.
Due to these changes creating what some see as an unclear picture of what can and cannot be done by a contracted officer, some law enforcement officers are deciding to pull their officers from schools to prevent any possible liability concerns. Independent School District 31 in Bemidji, however, is working with local law enforcement to keep this resource in their schools.
“Day-to-day working [for SROs] will not change,” said Olson. “The only thing is in certain situations where there is a more intense situation, SROs will have to rely on local police department officials to come in.”
“The way the legislation in written now, our fully uniformed officer can only stand there and watch, can only stand there and say, ‘Please don’t do that,'” explained Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin.
The language in the current Minnesota statute does not allow for an employee or agent of the district to place pressure or weight on a student’s chest, sternum, diaphragm, back, or abdomen, among other areas on the body. Mastin says some organizations, such as the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, interpret this wording to include placing one’s hand on students to stop a potential fight or separate them.
However, the larger issue centers around a two-letter word, or rather the lack of it. With the removal of the word “or” in the new language, it changes how the statute operates for agents contracted by the district such as SROs. The new legislation now allows reasonable force “when it is necessary under the circumstances to restrain a student to prevent bodily harm or death to the student or to another.”
“Most people think of restraint, they’re thinking of some kind of fighting, some kind of physical [act],” said Mastin. “But, just the act of putting handcuffs on [someone] is restraining them. And doing such would be a violation of this law.”
Due to the new legislative language, the memorandum of understanding between the Bemidji Police Department and ISD 31 has seen some changes as well.
“What it does is it just take us through the law and says, ‘Okay, these are the things just so the school district and the police department both understand what the SROs can and what they can’t do,'” said Olson.
“Essentially, those [updates remove] anything would put our officer at risk of violating any of these other two statutes,” furthered Mastin.
Despite seeing changes in how SROs may use force in certain situations, ISD 31 aims to continue building strong relationships between students and local law enforcement.