GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — District leaders at Grand Rapids Public Schools held a community forum Saturday afternoon after two guns were confiscated from elementary school students in May. In total, four guns have been found on students at GRPS this school year.

The forum came after district leaders made the decision to ban backpacks on May 10.

During Saturday’s meeting, parents, community members and GRPS teachers wanted their questions answered and their voices heard.

“I think today’s meeting was productive to get the community together, to realize that it’s us — and our teachers and our principals — versus an ineffective administration,” said Lucas Leverett, a GRPS parent.

GRPS held a community forum on school safety on May 20, 2023.
GRPS held a community forum on school safety on May 20, 2023.

When it comes to the next steps, community members and administrators seem to be far from consensus. District leaders said they are working with Jason Russell, a secure education consultant. Russell will be working with GRPS to assess every building in the district and conduct a safety report.

“Looking at everything that touches safety and security, so not only the physical security, which is only really one kind of small layer, but also looking at procedures, looking at mental health support, looking at relationships, looking at the climate of the schools,” said Russell.

Larry Johnson, the chief of staff and executive director of public safety, said it’s something they’ve been planning years before these incidents occurred.

“Jason Russel and I will sit down and begin to map out a plan in terms of how we want to assess the buildings, and his team will go to work, do some one-on-one interviews with staff members, hopefully some scholars, and some of our security staff, and then he will provide us with a report,” he said.

During the meeting, many parents spoke out about safety concerns and how they feel the district is handling them. Many said a “soft approach” is more effective than a “hard approach” when it comes to installing hardware like metal detectors. Parents also said the district should hire more mental health professionals instead.

“Don’t harden schools, make them softer by improving social and emotional health,” said Leann Finkbeiner, a GRPS parent. “It’s already there. The pandemic has already opened up money federally for us to have more mental health specialists, so we do have an answer there. I think also, knowledge is power.”

Many GRPS teachers also spoke out, stating how they are afraid of retaliation for letting their voices be heard.

“We have no onboarding training, we have no mandatory training, we have no situational awareness training and staff do not know how to call for help,” said Erica Ham, a GRPS employee and parent.

“I do not feel safe going into work,” said Joline Andrews, a GRPS teacher. “I second, third, fourth, fifth the feeling of fear and retaliation when speaking out. This feeling is reenforced when we give feedback, and it is ignored, or we are made to feel like we are crazy, or we are asking too much.”

Johnson said that isn’t the case, and he feels disappointed that teacher’s feel that way.

“I can assure you there will be no retaliation,” he said. “We encourage all of our staff and our students and our teachers to speak out. We want to hear their voice.”