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School resource officers needed in schools, not choke holds

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison provided needed clarity last week about what measures school resource officers (SROs) are allowed to use to restrain unruly students. His briefing is the latest state effort to reassure officers and schools that they will not be prosecuted for using force when needed against violent students.

An education bill passed earlier this year bans any restraint that puts students into prone positions, restricts their breathing or ability to communicate, or places pressure on the neck, head or upper torso. This change prompted over 40 Minnesota schools, including Mankato and Redwood Falls, to pull SROs to avoid possible litigation. In response, Ellison clarified that other restraints and “reasonable force” may be used by SROs “to prevent bodily harm or death”.

This clarification has appeased some agencies, but not all critics are satisfied. The law is accused of being ambiguous, as it is tricky to determine which situations fall into these categories. There may be no easy fix that will please all, but discouraging dangerous restraints and using force on students only in cases of clear and present danger are sensible precautions, that do not need to mean the elimination of SROs.

The fact is that schools are in a dilemma. They depend upon SROs to keep the peace and build trust with students. At the same time there is legitimate concern that the banned restraints could cause undue harm to students, even death, and might be applied in a discriminative fashion.

We cannot deny that there is violence in schools, from the proverbial playground fight to threats of active shootings. Students today can lash out in ways that may not be resolved by mere calm reassurance, and the immediate threats posed may require the use of physical force. Thankfully, these situations are rare at most schools, and having to restrain violent and dangerous students is only a small part of what SROs do to make schools safer.

But following the police killing of George Floyd, it is naïve to think that restraints are uniformly applied with the appropriate contextual wisdom, or that implicit biases don’t work to the detriment of students of color and other minority groups. When surveyed, white students report feel safer when SROs are in the schools, but not so for students of color. More studies are needed to establish the most effective use of SROs, and more training should be focused on de-escalation techniques and the eradication of implicit biases.

Some experts propose that addressing the connections between violent behaviors and the academic, social, and personal stresses experienced by students can also help to reduce the need for police intervention.

The removal of SROs means that many schools lack a vital option for responding to students who become violent. Leaving a vacuum in this regard is not advisable. A sensible approach to this issue recognizes the need for SROs in many schools, but likewise favors safer techniques over dangerous restraints.

Ellison stresses that the new law does just this–it allows SROs to use other restraints when lives are in danger, without the threat of prosecution. He seeks to remove ambiguity without having to call a special state session to revisit the law. But given the taut background of school violence and police overreach, the controversy is unlikely to recede without more legislative clarity.

In the meantime, each district should explore avenues for preventing, de-escalating, and responding to violence in ways that make sense for their schools. Lawmakers should work to make effective use of SROs, as well as mental health and other needed professionals, so that our schools are as safe as they can be for all students.

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