Home / Blog / Backpack ban isn’t solution to guns at schools, Grand Rapids parents and students say

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

Jan 18, 2024Jan 18, 2024

Grand Rapids Public Schools is banning backpacks in an effort to prevent students from bringing guns to school after four such incidents this school year. (MLive file photo)

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Parents and students have mixed feelings about Grand Rapids Public Schools banning backpacks on Wednesday after a fourth student brought a gun into a school building this school year.

But among everyone, the consensus is the same: Banning backpacks isn't a permanent solution to preventing children from bringing guns to school or having access to them.

"Banning backpacks is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Sara Kerai, the mother of a fourth grader at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy. "I get why they banned backpacks... but I just feel like the real issue here is the adult responsibility for locking up firearms and so that children cannot access them."

GRPS announced the decision to ban all backpacks and book bags for the remainder of the school year on Wednesday, May 10, after a loaded gun was found in the backpack of a third grade student at Stocking Elementary School.

"This is a repeated occurrence that we have to get a hold of," Superintendent Leadriane Roby said Wednesday about the new policy.

The backpack ban came as a surprise to parents and students. There was not an opportunity given for parent and student feedback prior to the ban taking effect Thursday, May 11. Some parents organized "GRPS SIT-OUT: Backpack Ban Backlash" to keep kids out of school May 11-12 in protest to the ban.

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

Annette Vandenberg, the mom of two GRPS high schoolers, said she was angry, frustrated and confused when the district announced the sudden policy change. She is among a group of parents organizing an effort to keep students home from school Thursday and Friday in protest of the backpack ban.

Vandenberg said she believes the district is making the wrong move by targeting backpacks as a solution to addressing gun control.

"It's just a temporary band-aid," she said. "The backpacks aren't the issue."

Grand Rapids Montessori Academy student Liam McDermand, 16, called the backpack ban was a "knee-jerk reaction" by the district – a phrase used by several parents and students in response to the policy change.

McDermand was part of a small group of GRPS students students who protested the backpack ban early Thursday afternoon downtown at the corner of Pearl Street NW and Monroe Avenue NW.

While he understands that the district is just trying to make schools safer, McDermand said the backpack ban isn't practical for high school students who carry around loads of school supplies every day.

"Kids are walking around with all this stuff, and some kids just didn't bring anything at all…There's much better ways to have security in a school than getting rid of backpacks entirely," he said.

Elizabeth VonKlompenberg, a mom of two kids at North Park Montessori Academy, said the backpack ban places the onus of responsibility on children, rather than adults, to prevent firearms from coming into schools.

"Yet again, the children in our community bear the brunt of our society's failures," she said. "I’m concerned about the subliminal messaging here -- what we’re really telling kids when we say they can't bring backpacks to school -- and I’m devastated by the loss of innocence."

Flint Public Schools also implemented a backpack ban in April for the remainder of the school year.

Grand Rapids school leaders issued a note offering guidance on the new policy late Wednesday. They said small compacts to allow for personal hygiene items would be allowed, but any large-size bag capable of concealing a gun would not. All bags will be subject to search, they said.

Related: 5 things parents should know about the new backpack ban at Grand Rapids Public Schools

Sophie Giang, 15, a student at City High Middle School, said she is still trying to adjust to the ban.

"It's like the beginning of May and it happened halfway through the week, so it was like really sudden," she said. "It kind of makes it harder since we have to carry our stuff around."

The Stocking incident happened just one week after another child, a 7-year-old student at Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School, brought an unloaded gun to school on May 3.

District leaders say that's four guns in schools is the most the district has ever had to confiscate from students in a single school year. There were two separate incidents at Burton Middle School.

Leticia Torres, a mom of two sixth graders at Burton, is pleased with the decision to ban backpacks, although she believes it's long overdue. Torres believes banning bags will lessen the chances of a student being able to sneak a gun into the school.

"They can still put it in their pocket or their jacket, but just the fact for them to not have a backpack makes a big difference," she said. "That's less chances of them bringing a gun or knife to school."

Torres was among parents and community members who pushed for GRPS to increase its security measures by installing metal detectors at Burton Middle School earlier this spring.

Related: ‘I’m afraid for my boys’ lives:’ Mom pleads for metal detectors at school where loaded gun was

Mixy Soto, a parent with students in the 12th, 8th, 5th and 1st grades at GRPS, said she doesn't object to a backpack ban on a temporary basis, especially in warmer weather. She thinks students can endure the hardship for a few weeks until the school year ends.

But she said the district needs a long-term solution to improving school safety. She also favors putting metal detectors in schools.

"I think we do have to up security," she said. "Does it mean we have to hire more security guards? I think we should. It's sad and unfortunate we are at that point."

Torres said she thinks the district waited far too long to take definitive action. She believes the district should have started ramping up its security measures after the very first incident happened at Burton in October.

"It's just so sad that it's gotten to where GRPS waited until the third and the fourth incident in order to act," she said. "I believe that after the first incident (if they had increased security measures), I’m pretty sure we would have been able to avoid the second, third or fourth incidents that have happened."

Several parents told MLive they believe the district should be focusing its efforts on communicating with families about safe gun storage, rather than instituting a backpack ban that is disruptive to students and teachers.

In March, a group of GRPS parents lobbied the school board to start sending information home to all parents about making their homes and communities safer through secure gun storage.

RELATED: Parent group asks Grand Rapids school board to promote safe gun storage to families

The superintendent was expected to address questions from the media during her 3 p.m. press conference scheduled with Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Grand Rapids Schools spokesperson Leon Hendrix said school officials are doing their best to protect students.

"We will implement this change with compassion, and we will make changes and exceptions as appropriate. At this time, we’re asking our scholars to bring only what's necessary and can be carried with them to school. We are reviewing what alternatives might be appropriate while accomplishing the work of protecting our scholars," he wrote in an email.

MLive's John Tunison and Liz Nass contributed to this article.

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