By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — The St. Joseph school board’s agenda Monday night was long and chalked full of important construction bids for the district’s school system.
However, what might be the most interesting item was the last one board members approved. The board often changes or alters its district’s polices, but NEOLA Policy 7217 was in relation to weapons on school grounds.
Much to the elation of Superintendent Ann Cardon, St. Joseph schools became the first district in Berrien County to restrict concealed carry permits at school while banning weapons altogether for visitors.
“To me, it’s a common-sense policy,” Cardon said Tuesday. “Our No. 1 priority is educating kids, but we must also make sure they are safe while doing so without something like that hanging over our head.”
The district’s policies are handled by NEOLA, a company that writes policies for various schools. Cardon said the service is used to get updates on changes in laws that may affect policies.
The policy was able to be changed following a court ruling in December.
The issue came to a head after Michigan Gun Owners, a nonprofit organization that acts on behalf of gun owners’ interests, sued Ann Arbor Public Schools in April 2015 after its Board of Education created a policy that banned guns on campus.
The lawsuit claimed school districts don’t have the authority to make laws about guns.
While state law allows individuals with concealed pistol licenses to openly carry their firearms in schools, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in December 2016 that the law does not pre-empt school districts from enacting their own firearms policies.
As soon as the ruling came through in December, Cardon said the district’s board members encouraged the administration in changing the policy.
The first reading came in February, before it was approved Monday night.
Cardon said based on her discussions with other superintendents in the county, she expects other schools are not far behind in doing so.
She added there has yet to be an incident where a visitor openly carried a firearm on school grounds.
“We’ve been fortunate in that matter,” Cardon said. “The community has been respectful of that. Bringing a weapon is tremendously disruptive to a school setting.”
Other than Kalamazoo Public Schools – which approved a policy of its own on Feb. 2 – Van Buren Intermediate School District Superintendent Jeff Mills said he wasn’t aware of any other district in Southwest Michigan that’s banned concealed carry permits from their premises.
Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said the open carry has seen its challenges with schools due to a loophole in two overlapping laws.
Many schools already possessed the right to ban firearms from school grounds. But prior to the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling a few months ago, a second law allowed gun owners with a CPL to carry a gun openly on school grounds.
“The law had allowed a loophole,” Heit explained. “If they had a CPL, they could open carry in a school. In general public, open carry is legal. Because it was a unique situation being in a school, we could ask them for a CPL. But that ability (to carry in a school) has since been closed based on the recent court ruling.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 8, 2017)