GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids Public Schools is banning backpacks from all schools after a third grader was found with a loaded gun at Stocking Elementary Wednesday, the fourth similar case this school year, the district said.
“This is a repeated occurrence that we have to get a hold of,” said Leadriane Roby, GRPS superintendent. “We are enacting, effective immediately, a backpack ban. That is a drastic step but we think it’s a necessary step because we want to ensure the safety of not only our scholars, but our staff and our community.”
The ban is for any bags large enough to conceal a weapon the size of a firearm. Lunchboxes are allowed, as well as small compacts to carry personal hygiene items. Students who play musical instruments are allowed to bring them in their cases.
Clear bags are not allowed.
All bags are subject to search, GRPS said.
“This ban will be implemented with compassion while primarily focusing on the safety of our scholars. Please reach out to your building principal if you need to discuss a special circumstance,” GRPS wrote on its website.
The ban will last until the end of the school year but the district said it will discuss with leadership and parents to decide whether to continue into next year.
The gun was found in the student’s backpack after another student reported it, Principal Michael Thomasma wrote in a letter to families. Grand Rapids police have been brought in to investigate.
No one was hurt.
“It saddens me that such an incident occurred within our school community today. Furthermore, it is frustrating to witness the increasing frequency of similar incidents not just in Grand Rapids, but across the nation,” Thomasma wrote.
This marks the fourth time this school year that Grand Rapids Public Schools staff have found a gun on campus. Each time, the student involved was middle school-aged or younger. One week ago, a 7-year-old brought an unloaded gun to Cesar E. Chavez Elementary.
Roby acknowledged that the ban might cause inconvenience for families but said safety for young people and the community is more important.
“Backpacks are a great hiding spot for contraband and we want to remove those opportunities until we can get our hands around the decisions young people are making right now,” said GRPS Chief of Staff and Executive Director of School Safety Larry Johnson.
News 8 spoke to parents, who wished to remain anonymous. They said they are frustrated with the new ban, however, some argued that it is necessary to keep their students safe.
GRPS is the second district to ban backpacks in Michigan. A week ago, Flint Public Schools on the east side of the state announced it was enforcing a similar policy.
Cameron Martin, a 6th grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids, said the ban is unfair and that more schools should invest in metal detectors.
“They should have metal detectors, for like, if they could search the bags, and if they have any metal things, they should get through it and see what it actually is,” he said. “If I know that some kids that are in the 3rd grade have guns, that makes me feel more of in an uncomfortable place.”
Martin also shared that there are some days he doesn’t feel safe at school.
“Now is the time to step up before we have a tragedy in this community. This is unacceptable, we will not continue to tolerate it. And so we’ve got to do some things to adjust our safety protocols so we can keep our scholars safe, keep our staff safe,” said Johnson.
“It is not acceptable and we plead to our parents, our grandparents, aunts and uncles, those who are the caretakers of young people in this community, to begin to search their kids’ bookbags and search their rooms. Particularly, elementary kids and middle school kids who have access to weapons,” said Johnson.
He said parents need to lock their weapons up, secure them and keep ammunition away from weapons.
Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Winstrom emphasized the responsibility of parents.
“Children, and I’m talking 7-year-olds and 8-year-olds, did the right thing and informed adults that they trusted about this dangerous circumstance. That’s what avoided this — decisions by 7- and 8-year-olds. What we need, in the city of Grand Rapids, is decision by adults in this city to be just as good as these 7- and 8-year-olds to make these decisions to do the right thing,” said Winstrom.
“I think it’s important that the parents … take just as great of an interest — a much greater interest — in looking at that backpack before it leaves the house. Whether your child is 8, whether your child is 18, take an interest in making sure that you take these guns out of your children’s hands,” he said.
Winstrom said he anticipated the parents of the child who brought the gun to school may face criminal charges but that it will be up to the Kent County Prosecutor.
Thomasma echoed the call for safe storage in his Wednesday letter.
“I would like to take this opportunity to urge parents who own firearms to prioritize the safety of their children. It is absolutely critical that all weapons are securely locked and kept away from the reach of children. As responsible adults, we must be the first line of defense in protecting our young people. I implore you to pay close attention to what your scholars bring with them when they leave your homes,” he said.
GRPS is hosting a school safety community forum for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. May 20 at GRPS University on Fuller Avenue NE north of Leonard Street.
Johnson said the district will be discussing a multitude of security strategies at that meeting, like enhanced cameras and secure entryways.
“This is going to be the first of a series of summits and forums that we intend to have, not only with our scholars, but with our parents, because we want to have the safest school district in the nation,” said Johnson.
Students and community members can always use the statewide OK2SAY program to send anonymous text tips about safety concerns.
For more information about the backpack ban, visit the Grand Rapids Public Schools website.
— News 8’s Taylor Morris contributed to this report.