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GRPS gets ready for school walkout, discusses gun violence, school security

GRPS announced on February 22, 2018 that it would stand by students in their advocacy for gun reform by supporting the Wednesday, March 14, 2018 school walk-out. This is an interview about the reactions to Superintendent Weatherall Neal's comments, the follow up and the community's reactions.
School buses parked for class trip

School buses parked for class trip /Steve Depolo

Grand Rapids Public Schools announced on February 22, 2018 that it would stand by and support students in their advocacy for gun reform by supporting the Wednesday, March 14, 2018 school walk-out. This walkout was organized by teens nationally in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018. The school system has sent out robocalls and a letter detailing their desire to facilitate conversations around school violence and to use the walkout as a teachable moment with students.

This is an interview with John Helmholdt, Executive Director of Communications & External Affairs at GRPS about the reactions to Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal's comments, the follow up communications and the community’s reactions.

Have you gotten feedback from parents, teachers, or students about the letters and robocalls going out about whether the students do feel supported?

“We had it both ways. We had a lot of individuals who are complementing us for standing out, standing up with our students and staff and also doing it in a way that is structured and organized and is not just a free for all. We have to put student safety first and how we’ve approached this, that’s exactly what we’ve done.

However, yes of course you had the detractors, the individuals who believe...we had a lot of angry emails from individuals who believe that what we’re doing is advocating to take guns away from individuals and it’s anti-second amendment. We’ve received some aggressive language on that side."

“By aggressive language, do you mean actual threats?”

“I’m not going to go that far. Threats to pull kids from the district, derogatory language about Grand Rapids Public Schools, about our got pretty ugly. I handled the two dozen or so with diplomacy and most of the time when we got back to them and tried to explain where we’re at, they didn’t necessarily like the answer, but they understood it better.

On the flip side we had individuals who contacted us that believe that the way we’re organizing with the permission slips and the messaging, that they think it’s not in line with the ultimate message of the national school walk out. They think that it’s too controlling, and we respect them. We respect them on all sides."

You said, "We respect all sides," what does that mean?

"We respect every individuals right to freedom of speech and in a constitutional democracy, those individuals are entitled to their opinions whether we agree with them or not. We have a position as a school board and district against guns in schools. That is very clear. We have lobbyists, including myself, in Lansing, in Washington D.C., who are advocating for those changes to the law. We will continue to do that."

In the letter sent home to parents, it says, “Teachers will emphasize the safety standards and curriculum (Teaching Education and Mentoring) outlined in the Student Policy Handbook. They will also use this time to highlight our anti-bullying policies and the seriousness of students making statements (verbal, written, social media) that may be perceived as threats regardless if they were credible or a joke/prank.”

If students are emphasizing gun violence, why are you emphasizing anti-bullying?

“That is one aspect that is part of the broader context of school safety and the measures of a safe school. So it’s not just limited to that. That is one thing that will be part of it in the context of school safety because we do know that in some cases bullying and harassment and threats that occur whether it’s verbal, physical or online, social media, those are cues in many cases to potential escalation. And I think that’s why we use this as a opportunity to reteach, if you will, about those measures of a safe school.”

“To some, it looks like you’re taking a walkout about anti-gun violence and turning it into anti-bullying. Do you worry that implies to children they need to be nicer so that bad things don’t happen?”

“You know, I’m...absolutely not. In this case we are focusing on the broader sense, the measures of school safety. Anti-bullying is part of that. We are using this as an opportunity to focus on school safety as well as the first amendment and civil acts, civil discourse.”

“Was there a conscious decision not to the put the word gun or shooting in the letter you sent home?”

“I wouldn’t say there was a conscious decision. We were very clear in how we framed the messaging around this with our theme around 'See it, say it, do something about it, stop school violence.''

Can you see how to some that reads differently than “to send a clear message to state and federal lawmakers that action is needed to update gun laws”?

“I don’t see it as differently, I see it as running parallel with the overall effort."

Do you think that telling children to tell on their classmates is a good way to approach standing with them in their fight against gun violence?

"Absolutely. It’s how you look at preventing security issues within the school or outside the school. It starts with knowing what the chatter is, what’s happening, what are the signs that might lead up to it? In most cases what are credible threats, what has prevented it has been individuals reporting it to an adult or authorities. That’s one of the most important measures that can happen in order to stop school violence.”

“But the average mass shooter is 20-49 years old, it’s not like they’re all in school with the children? And not all mass shootings happen at school?”

“What we know from the experts in school safety, including Larry Johnson, is that one of the most effective ways to prevent violence from occurring is to actually have individuals saying something. In FL you actually had that, unfortunately the authorities who received multiple reports didn’t do anything about it. That’s like the perfect example of a “See something, say something, do something” and in this case, they didn’t do anything."

“So teaching children anti-bullying didn’t to stop them from getting shot. Whereas many are arguing gun reform, gun laws might?”

"And we’ve advocated for that as well. Again, the board of education has advocated for that position. We are standing with the students and the staff have a right to their voice. And if that voice is around gun reform laws and federal investment in school support structure and technology, we support that. That is a given. That’s something my boss said very clearly when she put her statement out."

“Is your administration, school staff, teachers, anyone advocating for gun reform, together?”

“Absolutely. Our board of education has a very clear position opposing open carry and concealed carry in schools. Right now there’s a bill in Lansing that would ban open carry but allow for concealed carry. Right now it’s the other way around. Right now the state law says concealed carry is illegal is schools, churches, bars, hospitals. But if someone wants to walk in cowboy-style, open carry, that’s perfectly legal.

Our argument, our case is no, there should be no guns in schools. Period.

We believe there should be no guns in schools. We completely disagree with arming teachers. It’s one of the worst things you could do, to bring guns into schools. That is just defies common sense and is something we will strongly stand against."

Is there anything else you would like to add?

"I would just say a message to our students, parents, and staff is that we do stand with them. We respect their rights, their voices, their freedom of speech. We are participating, districtwide, on a voluntary basis, for that 17 minute walkout and we’re doing everything we can to ensure that it’s safe, that it’s as structured as it can be, that honors the voices of all students and all staff, including those who choose not to participate."

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