School safety has become a dominant concern among Michigan parents, legislators, and school officials following several highly publicized school shootings, including the fatal shooting of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland at Buell Elementary in Mt. Morris Township.
The response to these tragedies has ranged from proposals for new programs to teach children about guns to "character education" courses for students.
In late March, the state House passed a bill authorizing the State Police and Michigan State University to develop a gun-safety course for schools. The voluntary program would address students from kindergarten through 12th grade and be available to schools that request it.
One sponsor of the legislation believes that a gun-safety program could have prevented the tragedy in Mt. Morris. "If the program had been there, and another kid saw that kid with a gun, they would have known to go to a teacher and tell them there was a weapon," said Rep. Mike Green (R-Mayville).
Although some lawmakers had considered presenting such a proposal in the past, recent events made it clear that "it was time to do something," Rep. Samuel Thomas (D-Detroit), told The Detroit News.
The gun-safety proposal drew widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats. "I think it's the only time we've come together on an important issue since day one," Rep. Gilda Jacobs (D-Huntington Woods), said.
Programs that strive to educate students about personal character and values also are becoming more common in schools both in Michigan and nationwide. Many argue that weak character often leads to violence in schools and that these programs can help ensure school safety.
"We all agree there are character attributes that we'd like a student to leave school with," the late Detroit school board member Bill Beckham told The Detroit News. "The question lies in what methods we use to instill these attributes."
One such program, called Character First!, is used in several schools in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lapeer. Character First! instructs children in values such as truthfulness, gratefulness, orderliness, and forgiveness. Volunteer instructors, or character coaches, illustrate the values by invoking examples from the behavior of animals.
This program has generated controversy, however, by emphasizing immediate obedience to all figures of authority. Critics charge that this message discourages children from thinking freely.
"It's promoting a boot-camp mentality, where the children can become rote beings," Beckham told The Detroit News.
Others charge that the program could lead to the promotion of religion in public schools, raising church and state issues. A Christian minister developed the Character First! curriculum, and although the program makes no specific mention of religion, critics assert that the program incorporates subtle religious teachings.
The Josephson Institute of Ethics in California has developed a less controversial program called Character Counts! The Institute maintains that its "Six Pillars of Character"-trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship-"transcend divisions of race, creed, politics, gender, and wealth."
Several Michigan districts employ the Character Counts! program, including Battle Creek and Plymouth-Canton.
Dearborn Public Schools instituted its own program seven years ago, stressing the values of honesty, integrity, respect, responsibility, and courtesy. Teachers integrate these values into science, language arts, and history classes.
"We decided there were basic values that could be taught in the classroom," Dearborn Schools Superintendent Jeremy Hughes told the News. "We've seen our playground accidents and school confrontations go down significantly."
Some critics remain skeptical even of programs like Character Counts! They fear that any type of character education will expose children to the personal agendas of those who teach it.
The debate over character education is expected to intensify when the Michigan House Education Committee considers a bill introduced by State Rep. Valde Garcia (R-St. John) that would require public schools to adopt some type of character education by this fall.