Student safety is of the utmost concern whether you are working inside or outside the school building. This section is meant to serve as a guide for addressing safety concerns; use it as appropriate for your site. Please note that a lot of information is given in the following section. Do not let this overwhelm you. It is here if you should ever find it necessary. Remember, DNR foresters and the School Forest staff are always available to assist you.
How school forest lands are used is a decision for each school or district to make. School forest land can be open to all types of recreation use or restricted to specified uses. For example, school forest lands can restrict All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) and hunting use. Any restrictions on school forest land must be posted according to requirements designated in Minnesota Statutes, Section 97B.001, subdivision 4 . The School Forest Committee should first consider and identify appropriate site use. If restrictions are necessary, the school board or superintendent will need to be consulted. Make sure to follow proper school district procedure for designating restricted use at your School Forest.
Common restrictions for the School Forest Committee to consider are:
Who Has Control of the Land?
Land ownership is important. If the land is cooperatively managed or owned with a city or county, there are likely city or county ordinances that deal with hunting, trapping, firearms, ATVs, horseback riding, and other uses on such lands. Consult local officials for such information. If restrictions exist for the site, then proper posting, monitoring, and enforcement may be required. This information is detailed below. If the School Forest property is owned by a school or school district, there are several laws that need to be considered.
It is generally legal to hunt and trap on school forest lands. However, each school board has the authority to designate its school forest lands restricted or open to hunting and trapping. The following information is intended to help guide the School Forest Committee and school board when considering whether or not hunting and trapping are appropriate. Please read the information carefully. For clarification on legal definitions, consult the school district's attorney.
A school board can decide to keep school forest lands open to hunting and trapping. Record decisions in the school board minutes. It is then up to the school or school district to notify site users of the decision. Hunting or trapping on school forest lands can be a major safety concern. All teachers, activity leaders, volunteers, and students who use the site should be made aware of the policy. Appropriate measures must be taken by school staff to ensure student safety while learning in a School Forest. It is recommended to notify the community of the decision to allow hunting and trapping so that parents, students, and school volunteers are not surprised by these activities.
Are Guns Legal on School Grounds?
With hunting, the first question to consider is whether or not your site can allow the possession of firearms. Minnesota Statutes, Section 609.66, subdivision 1d deals with the possession of firearms on school property. The entire statute can be found at www.leg.state.mn.us or for an excerpt with the most pertinent parts of the statutory language.
A quick summary of the statute is that firearms are not permitted on school property, either in buildings or on improved grounds, without the written permission of the school's principal. There is no absolute definition of improved grounds in the statute. Black's Law Dictionary, often consulted by lawmakers, defines improved land as "Real property that has been developed." The improvements may or may not enhance the value of the land. (Black's Law Dictionary, Eighth Edition, 2004, West St. Paul, Minn.) If the School Forest Committee or school board is in need of additional advice or definition, consult the school district's attorney for an official opinion or recommendation. Decisions regarding hunting, trapping, and archery should be made by the School Forest Committee and the school board.
A school board may also choose to restrict ATVs, horses, or other uses of the trails or site. The School Forest Committee should determine the appropriate uses for the site and work with the school board or superintendent. Statutes that govern such restricted uses also come into play concerning hunting and trapping. The following section includes information regarding trespass laws and posting requirements that apply to all restricted uses of a site.
If a School Forest has a restricted-use designation (for hunting, trapping, ATV, horse, partying, camping, etc.), and the site has proper legal postings of the requirements, then trespass laws can be enforced by any law enforcement officer.
There are three statutes that address trespass issues: Minnesota Statutes, Section 97B.001 hunting and other outdoor recreation; Minnesota Statutes, Section 84.90 recreational vehicles; and Minnesota Statutes, Section 609.605 criminal law. Basically these laws allow any school to post a site for a specified or restricted use. If an individual violates the properly posted restricted use/trespass signs, they can be charged with trespass violation. Please familiarize yourself with the trespass laws by looking up the statutes and posting requirements at www.leg.state.mn.us or for an excerpt with the most pertinent parts of the statutory language.
A civil or criminal citation may be issued depending on the situation. This will be determined by the law enforcement officer handling the complaint. Any citizen can report a violation; it does not necessarily have to be witnessed by a law enforcement officer. If a violation is witnessed, as much of the following information as possible should be gathered, only if it is volunteered readily and without taking personal risk:
- Description of violation, including situation, date, time, and names of other witnesses.
- Name of individual(s).
- If name of individual(s) is not available, provide as much of the following as possible:
- Physical description of individual(s)
- License plate number
- Vehicle description
- Any other distinguishing information.
If a violation is witnessed, gather as much of the above information as is safely possible and contact the appropriate law enforcement officer for your site. You may contact any of the following: local police, sheriff's deputy, school resource officer, and DNR conservation officer or other peace officer.
If a school board decides to restrict school forest land use, the decision must be recorded in board minutes and proper posting measures for the site must be followed. Proper posting requirements are listed in Minnesota Statutes, Section 97B.001, subdivision 4. The entire statute can be found at www.leg.state.mn.us or for an excerpt with the most pertinent information.
Proper posting of restricted-use signs are necessary for enforcement of Minnesota Statutes, Section 606.99 (Personal Protection Act; concerning firearms on school property). Violation of this statute is a criminal citation enforced by a police officer. Proper posting (as listed in Minnesota Statute, Section 97B.001) is also required for enforcement of outdoor recreation trespass laws; these are civil citations enforced by a law enforcement officer.
Once the land is posted as restricted use (hunting, trapping, firearms, ATV, horses, etc.), enforcement must be considered. Who is responsible for making sure that no violations occur? Everyone. It is a good idea to prevent violations from occurring, rather than waiting for them to happen. The following information identifies several options for monitoring and enforcement of restricted use sites. Each School Forest should assess their needs and determine the appropriate level of assistance needed.
Teachers, parents, students, and community members are responsible for following any school forest postings and for reporting violations. If a violation is witnessed, call 911, local police, the sheriff's department, or a conservation officer.
DNR conservation officers can be asked to enforce outdoor recreation trespass laws. Conservation officers are peace officers, they will enforce properly posted outdoor recreation restricted-use requirements. To identify the conservation officer responsible for your area, go to www.mndnr.gov/enforcement or call 1-888-646-6367.
Local Police and Sheriff's Departments
Enforcement by city or county law enforcement is always a good option. City and county police officers are responsible for enforcing city and county ordinances as well as state laws within their jurisdiction. Contact local public safety officials to find out the best way to handle the ordinance and its enforcement. Police officers can enforce both civil no trespass laws and criminal firearms laws. Suggestions for increasing police or sheriff participation in monitoring a site:
- Ask for the school forest lands to be incorporated into patrol rounds.
- Ask officers to do paperwork in the school forest parking lot or other accessible and visible areas.
- Involve parents and communities, have them approach the law enforcement along with school officials to express their concerns.
- Payment can be made from the school to the police department to cover additional police time needed to monitor and enforce ordinances. However, most schools are able to accomplish this without paying police for extra time.
School Resource Officers
School resource officers, police officers who work for or in a school, may be able to enforce restricted-use postings at school forest sites. This arrangement will have to be worked out by the school and officer. Resource officers can be asked to patrol school forest lands regularly or check the site before any classrooms visit the site.
If enforcement options are not working, or are not available, for your site, there are a few things you can do to help the community take charge of the site and decrease criminal incidents at your site.
- Identify that issues with the site arise from violation of restricted use (hunting, trapping, ATVs, etc.) and not other activities, such as vandalism.
- Make sure the site is properly posted according to Minnesota Statutes, Section 97B.001, subdivision 4.
- Talk to the Minnesota School Forest Program staff for ideas on what other schools have done.
- Focus on a community effort to follow restricted use on the school forest site. Start an awareness campaign about the restricted use in place on your School Forest.
- Enlist support of parents, community members, students, teachers, and business owners.
- Make as many people as possible aware of the use restriction and what to do if they witness someone violating it.
- Be honest with your community about potential risks associated with restricted use.
- Remind residents that this was a decision made by the school board.
- Make sure local law enforcement is supportive of your efforts.
- Make sure DNR conservation officers are aware of your restricted use and that you need assistance.
Whether or not your School Forest will be used for nonschool events is a decision for the school administration and the School Forest Committee to make. By allowing the community to utilize the grounds, "ownership" is expanded and can help ease issues of vandalism, as well as encourage voter support if it ever becomes necessary. The involvement and support of the community can play a vital role in developing and improving the school forest grounds by providing funding and volunteer labor.
Of course, there are also risks associated with opening the School Forest to the public. The most important may be the issue of liability if an injury or death occurs on school property during nonschool hours. Additional insurance may need to be procured. A school district administrator can assist with liability and insurance questions. There are other issues for the School Forest Committee to determine as well.
- What are appropriate or inappropriate uses of the School Forest?
- What will the hours of operation be and who will enforce them?
- Who will be responsible for maintenance, including garbage collection?
- Will a fee be charged? Who will be responsible for collecting said fees?
- Who will be responsible for scheduling nonschool events?
- How will conflicts with school usage be avoided?
- May alcohol be served at nonschool events?
- Do dog walking, leash, and cleanup requirements need to be posted?
Both the benefits and costs need to be weighed to determine the best course of action for your unique School Forest.
Vandals can "hit" school forests in several ways—by destroying benches, spray-painting structures,and leaving behind litter and campfire scars. Vandals are usually young and live near the places they vandalize. Ideally, it would be great to identify the perpetrators and have them clean up their own mess. However, this usually isn't the case. The best way to deal with vandals is to prevent vandalism in the first place. Creating a safe and educational School Forest will build years of pride, respect for natural areas, and feelings of ownership for your students and community. Don't let fear negate your use of the school forest. Overcoming negative experiences is a valuable exercise in conflict resolution skills. As your students grow older, positive experiences in your School Forest now will generate thoughtful, caring citizens later!
School Forest Design
Consider how vandals are accessing the site. Is there a parking area near the forest? Is it possible to block access to parking when the school is not using it? The prospect of hauling a case of beer a block or more may discourage vandals from using the area.
When designing trails, consider how wide and curved they should be. Some recreation experts recommend lots of curves in trails to promote a positive sense of isolation in a wooded area. Curves block the view of other hikers who may be close by. Narrow trails force users to slow down and pay attention (but they can also spread out a class over a longer area). Wider trails make managing your class easier, but may be tempting to drive on; heavy wheels can bring forth deep ruts and invasive weeds.
We tend to protect territory we feel we own. The more that students and the community feel the land is "theirs," the more they will respect and protect it. This being said, encourage people to enjoy the forest respectfully. Through signs, visual art, articles, and community relationships, teachers and students can help make visits welcoming and educational for nonschool forest users.