GRPS will allow backpacks for 2023-24 school year

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids Public Schools says it allow backpacks for the upcoming school year, but also increase safety measures.

“We are moving forward with the allowing of backpacks to return to our district with our scholars this opening school year,” said Larry Johnson, GRPS chief of staff and executive director of public safety and school security.

Backpacks were banned from all GRPS schools in May after a third grader was found with a loaded gun at Stocking Elementary. The week before, a 7-year-old brought an unloaded gun to Cesar E. Chavez Elementary. There had been two other similar cases during the school year, the district said.

“This is a repeated occurrence that we have to get a hold of,” GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby said in May.

As students return to class Aug. 22, the district has decided it will not ban backpacks. In a letter to parents, GRPS recommended families consider purchasing clear backpacks, though that won’t be required.

“We had some input from staff, scholars, parents and some of our community stakeholders for their stance around backpacks. Overwhelmingly, over 90% wanted some level of backpacks returned. And so having listened to that input, listened to some input from some scholars, doing some one-on-ones in some buildings and our staff having some conversations, we felt it was necessary to take that input and then make a decision,” Johnson said Monday.

New this upcoming school year, the district has invested in new walk-through metal detection systems to go in elementary schools and will continue at GRPS high and middle schools. 

“As well as utilize those in random unannounced sweeps that some of our middle schools and elementary schools by increasing the number of sweeps that we do and adding (elementary schools) to our list of buildings this year,” said Johnson. 

GRPS says it is also implementing safety measures like increased random, unannounced screenings using weapon detectors, more mental health programming, school building assessments and more staff training. It is also getting parents involved, working with Parent Action Leaders to provide resources for mental health and safe gun storage.

The backpack ban lasted until the end of the school year. Throughout the summer, the district held community forums, consulted security experts and passed a safe gun storage resolution to help to decide what steps would be taken in the 2023-24 year.

“We have a gun safety curriculum that we are enforcing from the Michigan State Police teen program teaching education and mentoring. We plan to implement that into all of our buildings,” said Johnson. 

A focus will be on safe gun storage for parents.  

“We will have a section where we talk about safe gun storage because that’s important to our community. We’ve heard from our parents and that’s important to them as well,” he said.

GRPS said it is prepared for increased sweeps and how to deal with a dangerous school incident. Additional crisis aftercare services will be offered to help staff or students who are struggling. 

Though backpacks will be allowed, GRPS said it is working to increase safety measures all around to minimize a dangerous incident. 

“We think it’s a safe district but we want to be safer and we want to take the opportunity to work more closely with our parent groups and with our community stakeholders so that everyone has a voice in our next steps,” said Johnson.

The new safety measures go into place when school gets back in session on August 22.