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Mich. school district bans backpacks, citing safety: ‘Lives are at stake’

School backpacks like the one above will be banned from Flint Community Schools buildings for the rest of the academic year. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)
5 min

Police vehicles gathered outside Southwestern Classical Academy on April 19 as the Flint, Mich., school began the grim routine familiar to students across the country: going into lockdown because of a security threat.

The school was closed for two days as authorities investigated the threat, MLive reported.

In a fraught Flint Board of Education meeting the following week, administrators said the lockdown at Southwestern spoke to an ongoing issue of safety in the district. Their concern was heightened, they said, by the persistence of gun violence nationwide.

“In my 15 years of service here in community schools, I’ve never felt the way I do now,” said Ernest Steward, the district’s director of student services, who addressed the board at the meeting. “As it relates to the shootings and things like that that are going on in our country, in our community.”

The board voted unanimously that day to adopt a tough response: a ban on all backpacks from Flint Community Schools buildings for the rest of the school year.

In an April 27 notice to families, Schools Superintendent Kevelin Jones said the ban would help keep weapons and contraband off school grounds. Students will be permitted to bring lunchboxes, small purses for personal items and clear plastic bags for gym clothes, all of which will be subject to search.

Jones said in an email to The Washington Post that students, parents and teachers were sent a survey about the backpack policy before it was enacted.

The school board’s decision is an escalation of backpack policies that are commonly being adopted in the wake of school shootings but debatable in their efficacy, experts told The Post. Oxford Community Schools, which serve an area about 30 miles south of Flint, required middle and high school students to use clear backpacks weeks after a 15-year-old allegedly killed four of his classmates in a 2021 shooting at Oxford High School.

Clear backpacks “do not completely fix” the issue of weapons and contraband, Jones said in his notice to Flint families. He framed the backpack ban as an urgent move that matched the severity of school leaders’ safety concerns.

“We have thought long and hard about this decision, knowing that it will impact how scholars and families prepare for their days and operations in the classroom,” Jones said in the notice. “However, based on the issues we continue to see across the country regarding school safety, we believe that this is the best solution for those we serve.”

The Flint district has experienced multiple incidents of students bringing weapons to school this academic year, Steward said at the board meeting. Jones told The Post that the district had reviewed and cleared threats made against students, teachers and staff members.

Steward said the district had previously instated a ban on backpacks sometime in the 2000s. He added that a ban would streamline current school-entry processes because bag checks were delaying students in getting to their morning classes.

“Just this week, [despite] increasing our safety advocates, we still were 10 minutes late getting kids to class just ensuring that backpacks would be in check,” Steward said.

David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, said the Flint administrators’ fears are backed by the numbers. Instances of gun violence on school property have spiked since 2018, he said, mirroring broader patterns of gun violence nationally. The majority of those have been escalations of disputes in which a student draws a gun during a fight or an argument, he said.

“What that shows is that there are more teenagers that are habitually carrying guns,” Riedman said. “Because they have a gun when they get into one of those situations, that then escalates into a shooting.”

But Riedman questioned the efficacy of a backpack ban as a strategy to keep guns off campus. He said that a determined student could still smuggle a weapon into school, citing the Newport News, Va., first-grader who police said carried a gun in his pocket before shooting his teacher. He added that such a ban could erode trust between students and administrators.

“Ultimately, if a student wants to bring a gun onto the campus, they’re going to find a way to do that,” Riedman said. “What you need is other students to trust adults and report that there’s a problem.”

Deborah Temkin, a school safety researcher and vice president of the research firm Child Trends, also said the ban might not be effective. Backpacks — and access to phones, health products and private personal items — can be a lifeline for students, she said. Temkin also suggested that a ban could have a stifling effect on students’ mental health.

“Putting in measures like this reinforces that, actually, you should be afraid of the very people you’re going to school with,” Temkin said. “And that can create a perpetual fear that actually distracts students from their learning.”

But Kelly Fields, principal of the Accelerated Learning Academy, said at the Flint school board meeting said that a backpack ban would stamp out fears already looming over students.

“I would think that this would be an act of love and create safety for our young people,” Fields said, “if they didn’t have to have the burden of backpacks and they could know that they could walk through [school] safely.”

Flint Community Schools’ ban went into effect Monday. No school board member spoke against the ban at the board meeting. Board member Melody Relerford urged school leaders to enforce it rigorously.

“Lives are at stake,” she said.