Lansing area leaders call on Michigan legislature to take action on gun control

Updated 2 years ago on October 17, 2022

Lansing-area schools are increasing the number of police officers in schools, adding mental health and counseling resources for students, and strengthening building access, but local officials say much of what's needed to keep schools safe is missing.

About 25 people, including school officials, business leaders and local Democratic elected officials, met behind closed doors Monday, followed by several people holding a press conference.

Several superintendents said they want to see more talk about public safety, which includes young people's access to guns at home.

Senator Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, blamed the problem on the Michigan legislature, which he said refused to address gun control issues and left out the root cause of school shootings. He did not name by name the Republicans who control the House and Senate.

There is little opportunity in the state legislature to pass gun laws, Hertel said.

"It's the only way to really stop this problem," he said. "If our legislature refuses, it will make it much more difficult."

Jason Mellema is superintendent of the Ingham Intermediate School District, which covers 42,000 students. He said the tough conversations - many of them about guns - need to happen.

"These are difficult conversations with a lot of points of view, and the problem is that when we look at violence in schools, a lot of it ends up being about talking about guns," he said. "What's going on with guns? Where are we looking and how do we create safer opportunities for our schools? We also talk about mental health and well-being. It's also about the accountability of society as a whole."

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, was not invited to the meeting because of a scheduling error, Mellema said.

"We need to toughen up our schools, not by turning them into prisons, but by creating reasonable protections to make schools safe," Barrett told the Lansing State Journal. He is running against U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holley, for a new seat in Lansing's 7th Congressional District.

Barrett said protecting the right to self-defense and the confidentiality of mental health records are very important, and both need to be addressed to encourage more people to seek help. Both need to be balanced, he said, so law enforcement and schools can provide early warning of potential risks.

"We need to identify risk factors, especially among young men, who unfortunately are the biggest offenders."

Both Mellema and Barrett said the senator would be involved in future conversations.

Superintendents pointed out the changes that will happen to students in the fall: Every district and school building will have different changes, but they said they expect schools to have more police officers, controlled access to buildings that didn't have it before, and more access to mental health and other counseling resources for students.

David Hornack, superintendent of Holt schools, quoted author Jamie Vollmer and said that teachers and schools are being asked to do more than ever before.

The work that schools do every year to improve safety is necessary, and he welcomes the state budget, which offers substantial additional funds, but "it's still not really enough," Hornack said.

The $19.6 billion school aid fund, finally approved last week, includes a $450 per pupil increase in funding, as well as $625 million for "mental health services." Another $168 million is earmarked for school safety and infrastructure, and an additional $25 million is earmarked for school resource officers.

Dori Leiko, East Lansing schools superintendent, said she's excited about the increase in funding for mental health and safety, but would like to learn more about safe gun storage and how families can communicate with each other about guns in other families.

"Oxford brought him here, home," Leiko said.

Four students were killed in a mass shooting on Nov. 30, 2021, at Oxford High School in Oakland County. Six students and a teacher were injured.

Adam Spina, superintendent of Williamston Schools, said he would like more people to understand what school shooting drills do for students, as a training tool as well as a frightening experience for many students and some adults. He called for more student participation in future conversations.

"Schools should be places of love and learning, not forts and prisons," he said.

Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, said that common sense restrictions on gun sales, which she called common sense, could include restricting gun sales to people whose mental health or medical history might be a concern, as well as people who do not have mental health issues.

In May, about six months after the Oxford shooting, state lawmakers approved $37.5 million for school security.

Also after Oxford, the House created a special bipartisan task force on school safety to make recommendations, its co-chairman, Coopersville Republican Luke Meerman, told the Detroit Free Press in May.

Meerman said the recommendations, which are expected to be released soon, will include a number of bills proposing increased funding for mental health officers in schools, the creation of a permanent nationwide committee on school safety and more.

Meerman said in May that the task force tried to focus on areas where there was consensus, indicating that the consensus recommendation would not include gun control measures. But the task force will also submit a supplemental report highlighting other ideas that did not receive majority support from the task force.

Representatives from the Lansing area said they intend to push for public conversations about guns, continue to evaluate best safety practices and meet again with school leaders, law enforcement, legislators, business leaders and students.

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