Michigan School District Bans Backpacks Over Safety Concerns

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On the back of a door in a home in Flint, Mich., there hangs a black Trailmaker backpack that belongs to Jaxon Williams, a third grader at Freeman Elementary. It hasn’t been moved for nearly a week.

“It’s officially retired, like a jersey,” said his mother, Ladel Lewis, a City Council member.

That’s because Jaxon and over 2,800 other students across 11 campuses in the Flint Community Schools are subject to a ban on backpacks that began this week after district officials were alarmed by threats to students’ safety. It will remain in effect at least until the end of the school year in mid-June.

After the first week under the ban, Dr. Lewis and other parents in the district expressed frustration and skepticism, saying that determined students would carry weapons under their clothing. Some experts also question the effectiveness of such bans.

The ban, which allows bags the size of small purses, came less than two weeks after a security threat led to the closing of a high school in the district for two days. At a special meeting of the Flint Board of Education, educators voiced their growing concerns about school safety after a series of school shootings around the country, including one in Oxford, Mich., a community about 30 miles outside Flint, where a student shot and killed four classmates at a high school in 2021.

Younger children have also been bringing weapons to school. In January, a 6-year-old first grader in Newport News, Va., shot his teacher with a handgun.

“In my 15 years of service here in Flint Community Schools, I’ve never felt the way I do now,” Ernest Steward, the district’s director of student services, said at the meeting.

Mr. Steward’s safety concerns are valid, said Justin Heinze, an educational psychologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health who focuses on school violence prevention.

“It’s pretty much undeniable that the number of shootings and the severity of shootings are going up” in schools, Dr. Heinze said.

A 2022 report from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded a total of 93 school shootings during the 2020-21 school year, the highest since 2000-01.

About 3 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade will bring a weapon to school in a given year, Dr. Heinze said.

At the April 25 board meeting, Mr. Steward recommended eliminating backpacks for at least the rest of the academic year.

The threat to the high school was “just one incident of ongoing issues we’ve had this year around students bringing weapons into our buildings in backpacks,” he said. He added that the district had banned backpacks in the past.

As surging gun violence continues to devastate American classrooms and the president himself declared that he was powerless to prevent it, a patchwork of simple measures, including policies requiring clear backpacks or banning them altogether, have taken on heightened significance.

Backpack bans have been rolled out in other communities recently, including one put in place this week at an elementary school in Ocala, Fla., after a student brought in a toy gun that looked real, a spokesman for the district said.

In an April 27 letter announcing the new policy, Kevelin Jones, the superintendent in Flint, wrote that “backpacks make it easier for students to hide weapons, which can be disassembled and harder to identify or hidden” but that “clear backpacks do not completely fix this issue.”

“By banning backpacks altogether and adding an increased security presence across the district, we can better control what is being brought into our buildings,” he wrote.

Dr. Heinze said there was not much evidence to support either banning backpacks or mandating clear ones, noting that only a handful of studies in the past 20 years had looked at the issue in depth.

Dr. Lewis questioned why the ban was necessary for elementary school students. She said she had stopped sending Jaxon to school with a notebook, a folder and a change of clothes for his after-school activities.

Chloe Combs, an eighth grader at Holmes STEM Academy in Flint, has been bringing her lunch to school every day since kindergarten, said her mother, Sherese Combs. On Monday, Chloe, 14, switched from a backpack with plenty of room for a lunch bag and a water bottle to a miniature backpack, the size of a small purse, that can only fit a smaller lunch container. She’s not able to bring quite as much food, Ms. Combs said, “but she manages.”

Ms. Combs stressed that parents should do more to ensure that their children were not bringing weapons to school. She expressed disappointment over a violent clash between two parents during student pickup at a nearby charter school, in which the state police said one woman had shot another.

“The only time I’m comfortable is when she gets home from school,” Ms. Combs said about Chloe. “It’s just very stressful.”

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