Did some of the state’s top law enforcement officials jump the gun in opting to pull student resource officers, or SROs, from schools in the wake of a new state law that limits prone restraints of students to cases where bodily harm is imminent?
That’s certainly the appearance in the wake of an opinion issued by Attorney General Keith Ellison late last week that concludes the law does not make any significant change in how student resource officers can use force to control students when it’s truly necessary. Ellison points out the language in the statute that makes clear it does not preclude the use of reasonable force when faced with the threat of bodily harm by a student or anyone else in a school.
And that’s not just one man’s opinion. Minnesota Stat. 8.07 makes attorney general opinions regarding public school matters decisive unless overturned by a court of competent jurisdiction.
The decision by many sheriffs, including St. Louis County Sheriff Gordon Ramsay, to pull SROs comes with at least a whiff of politics, and Republicans were happy to jump on the bandwagon in calling for a special legislative session and to make the case that DFLers had overreached in their efforts to rein in aggressive police tactics.
In fact, the new law should have little or no impact on SROs. For one thing, the restrictions in the new law have already been in place for decades for special education students, which account for one-in-six students in Minnesota. That means every SRO working in a school today has had to comply with these rules from the beginning of their tenure for the very students who are often at the highest risk for acting out.
Under the new law, SROs are still permitted to throw a student to the ground and physically restrain them by straddling or other techniques for compliance in cases where the student is an actual threat to others. We suggest it’s perfectly reasonable to limit this kind of force to such instances. Does anyone believe a take-down and possible physical injury to a student is justified for things like swearing, mouthing off to a teacher, or some other non-violent act?
School teachers, principals, and deans deal with such outbursts all the time without resorting to the kind of physical restraints routinely deployed by police. While there’s a perception that youth violence in schools is on the rise, that’s actually belied by the statistics, which point to a decline since youth violence peaked in the 1990s. While school shootings remain a top concern when it comes to student safety, there’s not much evidence that an SRO is going to reliably stop a determined gunman.
A number of recent studies have, however, raised concerns about how SROs can change the culture of a school in ways that don’t always benefit some students. According to Education Week, one recent study found that schools with SROs experienced a higher proportion of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests of students compared to schools without an SRO, even when accounting for demographic differences. Similar studies have suggested that those harsher disciplinary actions fall most heavily on students of color, particularly African-American students, often without adequate justification.
The benefits of an SRO can be highly dependent on the level of training that officers receive, including training in how to work effectively with young people. They certainly can serve as mentors and provide other types of guidance to students, but the research suggests that most fall back on the techniques they learn as law enforcement officers. As the old saying goes, “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And there’s evidence that the presence of an SRO can lead to a heavier hand than is sometimes necessary when it comes to student discipline.
Many students face a plethora of challenges at home as well as at school. An SRO who is trained to recognize such situations can be an asset to a school. But so can a social worker or a principal who is engaged with his or her students. There isn’t much data to suggest that SROs have provided the kind of benefit to students that many had hoped they could achieve.
If school boards or sheriffs don’t see benefit in these programs and opt to end them, it’s not clear it will make much difference to students. But using the recent change in the law as an excuse to end SRO programs appears to lack justification. Calmer heads should prevail and the future of SRO programs should be decided on their merits, not politics.