Q&A: AG Ellison Explains SRO Policy

By Charlie Quick and Sonia Kharbanda

Keith Ellison
Attorney General Keith Ellison

When a new law passed in the 2023 Legislative session outlined how school resource officers could respond to incidents in high schools, many police departments pulled officers out of schools across the state. Now, lawmakers are working to create a fix and define what restraints can be used, including more specifications on the prone restraint, in hopes of returning officers to schools.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Rep. Cedrick Frazier shared their thoughts on how the bill currently being debated changes previous legislation and the role of school resource officers within schools with ThreeSixty reporters Sonia Kharbanda and Charlie Quick.

On Monday, March 1, the State House passed the fix and sent it to the Senate for a vote. ThreeSixty conducted its interview with Ellison on Feb. 24.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you feel about the SRO controversy and the new bill?

At this point, I think that there is a lot of thoughtful conversation, trying to balance two things. One is we should have safety in schools, and SROs are part of that, and that is important. At the same time, students have to be treated with respect, with dignity, and even if there is a disruption, that doesn’t mean that an officer has license to just do anything they want. They have to operate within the law as well.

The Constitution says that a person has the right to be free of unreasonable seizure. That’s under the Fourth Amendment, and therefore an officer can only seize your person if they operate reasonably. … What Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd was not reasonable. Did (they) have a right to arrest him? Actually, they did. But did they have a right to stay on top of his body and prevent his breathing for nine minutes and 29 seconds? No, and that’s why he’s convicted of a crime.

The officers do have a right to use physical force to create a safe environment to stop (someone) from assaulting people, to make (someone) comply with reasonable requirements of the law, but they have to restrain themselves within the bounds of reason as they do so. That means taking due consideration to the circumstances around you. So we’ll figure out if they strike the right balance at the end of the day.

If your kids were in school today, how would it affect your stance on this?

I don’t think it would affect my stance on this because, on the one hand, I don’t want my kid to get hurt by any other kid. So I don’t have a problem with the school trying to make sure that we have a safe environment for all students. On the other hand, my kids were not angels, and I had to go to school for a few fights. I wouldn’t want my kid to be in a prone position, in handcuffs for five minutes, or where his breathing is restricted. And I would be pretty upset if that happened to my kid.

What I’m trying to do is strike a balance that makes sense for everybody. I don’t think it’s a matter of, well, if it happens to me, it’s a problem and if it happens to somebody else, it’s OK. Even students know that there are students in the school who do create a violent disruption sometimes. If your school is anything like the one I went to, or my kids went to, sometimes things jump off.

But what we don’t want is excessive, unreasonable force on students. But we do want the SRO to be able to use enough force to preserve the safety of every other student. It’s kind of a balancing thing. It’s kind of a trying to get to the sweet spot.

Overall, do you think this bill will make schools safer?

I hope so. When you write a law, your hope is that it’ll do a lot of good. Sometimes when you have to implement the law, it has problems. So every law is associated with a good effort and a hope. No honest legislator will tell you that the law (they) wrote is perfect and it’s always going to be perfect in every situation no matter what.

My best guess, based on 30 years of practicing law, based on everything I’ve ever seen and known, (is that this law) will make things better. But at the end of the day, we’re going to have to implement the law, and we’re going to have to adjust it for as people try to use it.

How do you think this bill will affect students of color and students with disabilities?

When it comes to students of color, we live in a world that says that everybody should be treated with equality and equity, and we cannot have racial bias. Then when it comes to reality, our society has had a history of racism, well documented, everybody knows it, so it is possible that some schools that allow people who have bias will use that bias to their discretionary latitude to implement their racial bias We do have to have some checks on that. We have to continue to listen, continue to make sure that students of color’s voices are being heard, and we have to be vigilant for racism.

We can’t let the past block us from implementing policies that will help all students, and we can’t ignore the fact that sometimes in our society, racism and bias seep into what is a neutral policy.

Now here’s the thing with kids with disabilities. There’s got to be a lot of training around students who have autism, students who have anxiety, depression, and students who are dealing with different challenges in behavior. We teach (police officers), if someone balls up their fists, if they stare at you intently, if they make their body rigid, that’s a sign that you better get ready to defend yourself against a blow. And yet, those are all signs of somebody in an autistic episode. It is absolutely the case that students with disabilities can be very negatively impacted by even a neutral policy if there is no good judgment.

We need to train and make sure the SROs know every student and make sure that the personnel who are not SROs are on hand to be able to guide the SRO as to how to handle this student.

How do you think we can improve trust between school resource officers and students?

Trust has got to be earned, right?

First of all, I’m not a fan of uniformed officers in school. I think that you can use clothing and you can use attitude and you can use relationship-building to go a long way toward building trust. At the end of the day, the school resource officers have got to understand their best asset is not force. Their best asset is trust. And what does that mean? You get to know the students, you show respect to the students, and you create an environment where the students consider you to be truly a resource, as opposed to a cop who’s looking for them to do something wrong.

I would say that’s true for nearly any police officer, that if the community trusts you, if they believe that you’re doing the right thing for the right reason, you’re gonna be more effective than if people are scared of you, don’t like you and think you’re out to hurt them. Active trust-building is the key.

Sonia and Charlie worked with Minnesota Reformer reporters Madison McVan and Deena Winter to finish their story. This story was completed at ThreeSixty’s Winter News Team: Capitol Edition in February 2024, where high school journalists covered important legislative issues, impacting Minnesota youth. Read more stories here.