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As school returns, Flint and Grand Rapids rethink their backpack bans

Grand Rapids Public Schools Chief of Staff and Executive Director of Public Safety Larry Johnson and Superintendent Leadriane Roby standing outside
Grand Rapids Public Schools Chief of Staff and Executive Director of Public Safety Larry Johnson and Superintendent Leadriane Roby discussed the district’s decision to allow students to once again use backpacks this school year.
  • The Flint and Grand Rapids school districts banned backpacks in the spring because of safety concerns
  • Now, Flint had modified its ban while Grand Rapids revoked its ban
  • Both districts hope parents will take more responsibility in ensuring students don’t bring guns to schools

Grand Rapids—With the start of a new school year, two Michigan districts that banned backpacks last spring to prevent guns from entering schools have tweaked their policies. 

Flint and Grand Rapids district leaders made national news a few months back by issuing student backpack bans in the final weeks of the school year. 


When school starts Wednesday at Flint Community Schools, students in seventh through 12th grade still won’t be allowed backpacks and must find alternative means to carry books and supplies. Younger students, from kindergarten to sixth grade, can use backpacks but they must be clear, the district announced.

In Grand Rapids, there will be more of a return to normal. All students will be allowed to use backpacks, with the recommendation — but not the requirement — that they be clear. 

Schools in Michigan and across the country are reappraising security protocols following a series of high-profile shootings and gun incidents. In Michigan that effort has received a boost from a flood of federal and state money made available to help curb gun violence. 

Flint and Grand Rapids implemented backpack bans last school year over concerns about students hiding weapons or other contraband in backpacks. Flint, a 2,800-student district in Genesee County, did not provide a number of how many times a student brought a gun into its schools. In Grand Rapids, which has about 13,800 students, officials enacted a ban after four incidents last year in which students brought a gun to district elementary and middle schools — three of the four guns were found in backpacks

Larry Johnson, chief of staff and executive director of public safety for the Grand Rapids district, told Bridge Michigan the ban last semester provided the district with time to “regather our thinking” about school safety and work with parents on safety. 

In allowing students to return to using backpacks this year, he told Bridge he hopes a new state gun storage law, which requires adults to secure firearms in a home where minors are present, “will hold parents accountable in terms of those who have weapons in their home, securing those weapons and keeping them out of (the) hands of children.”  

In Flint, Superintendent Kevelin Jones told Bridge the backpack rule is going “to be in perpetuity for now.” 

“I do hope for parents to have to be more responsible to what is happening with their children,” he said. 

It’s unclear how many school districts in the state or country have backpack bans this school year. The Michigan Department of Education does not keep track of which districts have backpack bans, nor does the Michigan Association of School Boards. 

Districts in other states are rethinking backpack policies as well after a handful of schools in Idaho, Florida and other states also enacted bans. 

The DeSoto Independent School District, just south of Dallas, Texas, prohibited backpacks for sixth through 12th grade students in April, but announced this month that backpacks will be allowed for the 2023-2024 school year. 

U.S. school shootings continue to cast a shadow on the debate. In May 2022, 19 children and two adults were killed in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. This January, a six-year-old shot his teacher in Newport News, Virginia. Then in March, three children and three adults were killed in a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee

Michigan lawmakers recently passed a range of gun safety measures. In addition to the safe storage law, there were also measures passed regarding background checks and ‘red flag’ laws in the months following the mass shooting in February on the Michigan State University campus that killed three students and critically injured five more

Metta Dwyer, the mother of three Grand Rapids public school students, said she would like to see the federal government pass gun control measures. 

She said she has a “heightened concern” about the possibility of a school shooting but she knows it’s “still very unlikely.”

“There is a part of me that's like, ‘Well, the fact that they found these weapons (on students last year) tells us that something, somewhere in the process was working correctly.” 

She told Bridge she imagines the backpack ban in place at the end of last school year helped deter people from bringing a gun to school since it’s harder to hide a gun without a backpack. 

“I think banning the backpacks was like, ‘We have to do something and we don't have a lot of time. And we just have to like take action because this keeps happening.’”

Since a high school student killed four classmates and injured several others at Oxford High School in 2021, state grants totaling up to $335 million have been allocated to Michigan public schools for school security improvements. 

In Grand Rapids, Dwyer said she thinks her eighth grade daughter will need some sort of bag because she has a lot of homework and there isn’t enough time to switch her stuff out at her locker between class periods.

“Given that the problems last year that precipitated the ban were elementary schools, I’m less convinced that they needed to bring back backpacks for the elementary school kids,” Dwyer said.

Grand Rapids school officials confiscated an unloaded gun from a student at Burton Middle School in October 2022 and a loaded gun from another Burton student in January. In May, officials confiscated an unloaded gun from a student at Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School and a week later, they confiscated a loaded gun from a third grade student at Stocking Elementary School.

In Flint, Karen Christian, a sixth grade teacher and a local teacher union president, said elementary students were losing their stuff without having access to a backpack last year.

“At this point, I think for K-6 we're good (with allowing students to once more have backpacks),” the United Teachers of Flint president said. “The only thing that we would reevaluate is if (contraband) gets into the building in K-6.” 

In a letter explaining safety plans for the upcoming year, GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby said the district plans to increase random screenings, in-person violence prevention programming for students who were previously expelled and mental health staffing and also complete assessments of school building security. 

Marta Johnson, the mother of two Grand Rapids elementary-aged students, told Bridge she is neutral on the subject of backpacks but would like to see the district communicate more clearly about school safety and engage parents more.

Until there is a more clear plan in place, Johnson said, the district is “throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.” 

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