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Grand Rapids students glad to have backpacks back, but safety concerns remain | #schoolsaftey

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – City High Middle School sophomore Karina Rodríguez had “mixed emotions” when Grand Rapids Public Schools announced Monday that it was reversing its backpack ban ahead of the upcoming school year.

On the one hand, the 15-year-old was glad she would be able to bring her backpack to hold all her books, laptop, and school supplies during the day. She said it was a hassle carrying them all in her arms during the spring, when GRPS banned backpacks for the remainder of the school year.

But she still remains frustrated that school leaders issued such a sweeping backpack ban in the first place, without consulting students and parents beforehand. Rodríguez also remains concerned for her safety at school, after four incidents last year where students brought a gun to school.

On May 10, Superintendent Leadriane Roby announced the backpack ban was going into effect immediately, after a loaded gun was found in a third grader’s backpack earlier that day.

RELATED: Grand Rapids Schools backpack ban rescinded, but more weapons screening coming

“I feel like as a GRPS student, or just as a person, I’m never gonna be sure of my safety,” the teen told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press on Tuesday, July 25. “I feel like (banning backpacks) wouldn’t stop a student from bringing a weapon to school. Being in school, I should be more than 85% sure that I’m not going to be in an incident where there’s another student bringing a weapon.”

Grand Rapids students and parents reacting to the Monday night announcement the ban was lifted were largely in favor of the district’s decision to allow backpacks the 2023-24 school year.

RELATED: Backpacks banned at Grand Rapids schools after 4th gun incident this academic year

But families still had questions about how the district would keep kids safe and prevent other children from bringing weapons to school, after last year’s uptick in gun-related incidents at three different schools.

Nkechinyere Okwuwasi, an incoming sophomore at City High, didn’t feel like a backpack ban was an effective way to control guns. Like her classmate, she also feels like school leaders should have talked to the community for better suggestions before instituting a ban.

“Just taking away backpacks doesn’t solve the problem,” she said. “There’s many different ways people could sneak those types of things into school. I feel like they could have asked the community, ‘What do you think we should do?’ instead of just taking away our backpacks randomly, the night before school. That was totally out of nowhere.”

On Monday, Grand Rapids school leaders laid out a multipronged school safety plan for the 2023-24 school year that included more “random and unannounced” searches, metal detection systems, violence prevention programming, mental health services, and building assessments.

RELATED: Random metal detector checks to begin in Grand Rapids school buildings when classes resume

GRPS mom Matteah Reppart, who has two middle schoolers in the district, said she thinks those are great long-term measures to put in place, but she remains “uncertain” that the new security plan will prevent weapons from entering schools in the short-term.

She questioned how doing random searches, and not using metal detectors all the time, will provide complete protection to students.

“I feel a level of uncertainty that this is really sufficient to truly prevent this from from happening again, especially if we had four incidences in one school year,” Reppart said. “I am not sure that I feel assured that enough is being done.”

Reppart said she wants more information from district officials about how they developed the new safety plan. She wants GRPS to communicate more clearly and demonstrate what specific research and data led to that decision.

“Can they explain that this is moving the district in a direction that will prevent threats of violence or weapons being brought to school or actual violence from happening in our schools?” she said.

Annette Vandenburg, the mother of two GRPS high schoolers, said she was glad the district announced its new backpack policies a month before the start of the new school year. She said the Monday, July 24 announcement gave families plenty of time to prepare and have conversations with their youngsters before the school year begins.

“I’m glad they’re addressing it earlier than later,” Vandenburg told MLive Tuesday. “Communication with schools have sometimes been last-second, so it’s hard to pivot. I do appreciate the improved communications from GRPS.”

Vandenburg said she felt like the initial backpack ban was a “knee-jerk reaction” that was rushed into implementation – a sentiment that was echoed by other parents when the ban was announced this spring. She said parents didn’t have enough time to prepare for the ban with their kids before it was put into effect.

She also said her two high schoolers were frustrated with the backpack ban, because they didn’t know how to carry all of their school supplies, including laptops, securely without a bag.

“They were just frustrated,” Vandenburg said. “They didn’t want to go to school.”

The backpack ban was implemented May 10 after a fourth incident in the 2022-2023 school year involving students bringing guns to schools.

The two most recent incidents involved two elementary school students bringing guns to schools in backpacks. In early May, a 7-year-old brought an unloaded handgun to Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School. A week later, a third-grade student brought a loaded handgun to Stocking Elementary School.

Grand Rapids school board president Kimberley Williams said she is in full support of the district’s decision to allow backpacks again. She believes the rest of the board also supports the decision.

“As a person that works in criminal justice, I understand that these things are not an easy fix,” she said. “We did what we thought was best to end the school year in a safe manner. But the fact of the matter is, we understand that this is going to take so many layers of support, to address the issue of firearms getting in the hands of our young people.

“The backpacks, and whether they (students) have them or not, is not going to be the panacea to this.”

Williams also supports the district’s plan to conduct random and unannounced searches using metal detectors, which she believes will allow school staff to be vigilant for weapons while also giving students some “autonomy.”

“I do think it is important that we don’t set our young people up to be in a mode of compliance and control, versus them actually using their agency and autonomy to choose to show up to our facilities ready to learn,” she said.

RELATED: Random metal detector checks to begin in Grand Rapids school buildings when classes resume

Williams wants families to know that GRPS administrators have heard what parents had to say about the backpack ban. In the two months after the ban was announced, the school board heard feedback from dozens of parents and community members who shared both critique and praise for the ban in meetings, she said.

Overall, what Williams heard loud and clear was that backpacks alone weren’t the answer to addressing gun safety.

“What I was hearing most clearly is that parents felt like not having a backpack, wasn’t going to solve the problem,” she said. “And we understand that that is not going to solve the problem. This is a multifaceted issue that requires families and community, school and city to all work together to get to an outcome that is going to keep our children safe.”

RELATED: Backpack ban isn’t solution to guns at schools, Grand Rapids parents and students say

Recent polling conducted by GRPS showed that most families were in favor of rescinding the backpack ban, according to the district.

A July survey completed by over 3,700 students, parents, staff and community members showed that 51% of respondents wanted the district allow backpacks again, while 40% of respondents were in favor of clear backpacks. Roughly 8% of respondents said they wanted to keep a backpack ban in place.

“Overwhelmingly, our parents wanted some type of container for their students to bring things to school in,” Larry Johnson, GRPS chief of staff and executive director of public safety, told MLive Monday.

Grand Rapids was one of two Michigan school districts to ban backpacks last school year, along with Flint Community Schools, which banned backpacks in April in response to a string of safety incidents throughout the year.

Last week, Flint announced backpacks would remained banned for all students in seventh through 12th grade during the 2023-24 school year. Students in sixth grade or younger will only be allowed to carry clear backpacks, which will be provided for free from the school district.

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Grand Rapids brewery creating specialty beer for first-ever ‘Christkindl Markt’

West Michigan mental health board member who used slur asked to resign

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