Flint, MI — Flint Community Schools’ (FCS) seventh to 12th graders will no longer be allowed to carry backpacks heading into the new school year.

The policy, which also gives the district’s prekindergarten (pre-K) through sixth grade scholars the option to carry clear backpacks, was adopted amid mixed feelings from FCS officials at a Board of Education meeting on July 19, 2023.

“I think this policy is a good, crafted compromise, but it also removes us from the status quo to keep our students and staff safer,” Board Treasurer Dylan Luna said. “It shows our community we’re serious about keeping our kids safe. Because if kids aren’t safe or don’t feel safe, they can’t effectively learn.”

Luna’s comment came after the Board heard from multiple teachers who spoke in support of providing the district’s younger students with a clear backpack option within the ban.

To make her case, Holly Selesky, a teacher with FCS for nearly three decades, physically removed items from a bag she brought to the podium during public comment.

As Selesky took out a water bottle, snacks, a pair of sneakers and a folder, she noted that such things would “end up everywhere” during the last month of the prior school year, when a districtwide backpack ban was put in place following safety threats at Accelerated Learning Academy (ALA) and Southwestern Classical Academy, which serve grades seven to 12 and nine to 12, respectively.

“I didn’t even put in here science projects, art projects,” she said. “So please, please consider backpacks for our elementary scholars.”

Selesky was joined by other teachers asking for the same consideration, noting important papers may blow away in the wind and that some little ones can have “toileting issues” and carry diapers, wipes and changes of clothing to school.

But while the teachers who spoke during public comment were in favor of the policy, some administrators were less so.

“It being my responsibility to give you, to make recommendations based on the safety issues: I’m still going to stand by that I feel like there should be no backpacks,” said Ernest Steward, the district’s director of student services and enrollment. 

Steward detailed safety concerns FCS faced last year, later estimating that there were “probably five to six” incidents of weapons being brought into the district’s elementary schools.

“So I just … the best recommendation from a safety standpoint, to me, would be to make it as difficult as possible for students to bring weapons into our buildings,” he said.

Kelly Fields, former principal of ALA and current director of academics for the district, echoed Steward when asked how she felt about the policy by Board President Michael Clack.

“How do I feel?” she said, pausing. “So I’m going to be transparent in this moment and be Kelly Fields, the person who was on the receiving end of somebody having two guns in her building.”

Fields said the question was triggering for her, as she’d had to expel a student whom she “absolutely loved” because he “made a very poor decision.”

“And then I had to think about all of the students that I love dearly that could take the potential to make this wrong mistake to bring them [guns] again and then put people at risk,” Fields said. “So… for me, I believe that K-12 buildings should not have bookbags … But I’m a representative here for not just myself but for the principals that I also represent, as well, and there’s only two elementary principals that I spoke with that align their thought to me, the other principals did want bookbags.”

Ultimately, the Board voted 6-1 to approve the policy, with Trustee Melody Relerford casting the solitary “no” vote.

“If the director of security states its a issue of safety, and this Board ignore it, when something happens, I don’t want no—not one of y’all to shed a tear because you put it forward,” Releford said.

FCS Superintendent Kevelin Jones noted there are still some logistics to work out regarding the policy, both because it requires the district to supply clear backpacks to the pre-K through sixth graders who opt to use them and because there may need to be further discussion about what can be in those bags.

But, he said, he thinks the policy is one FCS should try.

“I think we can do this. Everything is not foolproof, no matter what you do,” he said. “And I appreciate everyone’s thoughts around this, but we also have to remember what teachers are asking for, what principles are asking for. They also have to be accountable to help us make this work, as well… So I do hear each one of you, but we need to be able to try things to ensure that we’re doing what’s best for our school community.”

Jones said he anticipates the district will be able to supply clear backpacks to eligible students within the first few weeks of the new school year, which starts next month.

In an emailed statement following the meeting, Jones told Flint Beat the backpack policy approved on July 19 only applies for the 2023-24 school year.

“We will monitor and assess this policy throughout the school year in order to make decisions for the 2024-25 school year and beyond,” he said. “We look forward to seeing scholars on Wednesday, August 9 for the first day of school.”

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....