Michigan students protest backpack ban after gun incidents

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Thursday was the first day of a new backpack ban for students at Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan. The ban comes after an 8 year-old brought a loaded gun to Stocking Elementary Wednesday, the fourth similar case this school year.

GRPS student Nola Degroft helped plan a protest outside of Innovation Central High School Thursday. She’s concerned about safety but says the backpack ban goes too far. According to the district website, the ban is for any bags large enough to conceal a weapon the size of a firearm. Clear bags are also not allowed.

“People are feeling very vulnerable because we’re having our privacy and security taken away. We can’t properly carry things,” Degroft said.

Degroft and other students say they want the district to consider other options like clear backpacks or metal detectors. Under the ban, students can still bring lunchboxes and small compacts to carry personal hygiene items, according to the district. Students who play musical instruments can bring them in their cases.

Since the beginning of the year, four guns have been confiscated from students at elementary and middle school levels in the district.

Parent Lucas Leverett says he kept his 16-year-old home from City High Middle School in protest. He said the district rushed a policy in place without providing enough notice and without providing enough clarity on the policy and exceptions.

“We had the ability to just close the schools the rest of the week. Take a breath, write a policy. Make a good plan. Start Monday with something that made more sense for everybody — that people could understand what to do and what the variables are and have a little time to prepare for it,” Leverett said. “We’ve closed the schools for dumber reasons.”

A news crew with Nexstar’s WOOD spoke with parents as they dropped off their kids. One parent said many more parents were walking their kids to the sidewalk leading to the school entrance.

GRPS students protest a ban on backpacks after four instances in which guns were seized from students at schools. Taken March 11, 2023 (WOOD)

“We are working to make sure students are safe and well educated,” said Stocking Elementary principal Michael Thomasma. The principal said despite the protest, the day back was “smooth,” though he acknowledged community apprehension.

District staff and a security officer were also around as students arrived. The officer patrols the schools “several times a week,” according to Larry Johnson, executive director of public safety and security. 

Johnson added the district didn’t consult parents or students when deciding to ban backpacks, citing that the administration felt a decision needed to be made immediately.

When asked if staff would reconsider the ban or allow clear bags for the remainder of the school year, Johnson didn’t rule that out.

“This morning, in talking with our staff, we are always going to review some of our practices, policies and procedures, and we will surely go through the rest of this week and take the opportunity to see how it went and then review what we did,” he said.

Grand Rapids Innovation Central High School students walk out to protest a ban on backpacks after four instances in which guns were seized from students at schools. (March 11, 2023)
Grand Rapids Innovation Central High School students walk out to protest a ban on backpacks after four instances in which guns were seized from students at schools. Taken March 11, 2023 (WOOD)

WOOD asked Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker how these cases should be addressed.

“I think the biggest thing is hopefully being proactive. I think of what the schools are doing and trying to get the message out that you’ve got to watch what their kids are doing is a good thing. In terms of criminally, that’s something we’ll have to take a look at. It’s going to depend on the facts and circumstances,” Becker said.

Prior to the decision, Johnson said he was aware of what measures other districts across the country have implemented to keep weapons from being brought to schools by students.

He continued having conversations with his counterparts Thursday morning and hopes to hear more from parents and students during a community safety forum at GRPS University on May 20. The forum will last from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

“We’re hoping we can hear more from our parents on what is our next step in the Grand Rapids Public Schools as it relates to safety and security and then incorporate those voices into our next steps,” Johnson said.


AG meets with GRPS leaders

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel met with Roby and Johnson earlier Friday to discuss safe gun storage laws. Nessel said it’s by educating and enforcing that changes in the district will be made. 

“The important thing is this: It’s just keeping people safe,” said Nessel. “I mean, that’s the beginning, that’s the end — keeping people safe. I think for the vast majority of people here in Grand Rapids, here in Kent County, here in the State of Michigan, people appreciate that this is just a very basic easy safety issue and it’s a way to prevent a lot of kids from being hurt, from dying and being traumatized.”

She also talked about safe gun storage laws, which will go into effect sometime next year.

The main takeaway from Friday’s meeting was for district staff to have conversations with parents about locking up their weapons. Johnson said the first day of the backpack ban went well.

During the meeting, Roby called these incidents a “health crisis” for students in the district. She also talked about mental health services for students and said the district needs more counselors and social workers.

On Friday, Johnson also showed the gun that was found on the 7-year-old student last week at Cesar E. Chavez.

“What I am going to say is that when a child … finds this in a dresser drawer at home, it is very difficult for them not to pick that up and put it in their book bag,” said Johnson. “We are going to work with our families so we can eliminate stuff like this from coming into our buildings. But more important, eliminate these from getting on the streets in the City of Grand Rapids to make our community safer.”

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