TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools board members didn't know it was legal for someone with a concealed pistol license to openly carry a loaded firearm into a Michigan school until this year.
The issue hadn't come up until Interlochen resident and Grand Traverse County Commission candidate Andy Marek attended a TCAPS board meeting in January with a gun holstered on his hip. His public comment had nothing to do with guns, but school board members noticed his firearm.
Marek said he brought his gun with him into the Tompkins Boardman Administration Center for protection. The administration center is where monthly school board meetings are held but does not have any classrooms used for student instruction.
Marek stands by his legal right to open carry.
"Most shootings happen in schools. I need to be able to defend myself and the life of people around me, and I'd feel really bad if something happened and I didn't have my tool with me to defend myself or others," Marek said.
Board president Kelly Hall said Marek's appearance raised concerns among board members. They asked school administrators to look into state law and school policy. Administrators found that Marek was acting legally at the meeting, and it would also be legal for him to open carry inside a school.
Traverse City Police Capt. Mike Ayling said the law is nothing new. It is illegal for someone with a CPL to carry a concealed firearm on a school's campus, but there's nothing in state law that says they cannot carry it openly.
TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins sent an email to parents Friday afternoon updating them on the law.
"We respect the people's right to carry weapons, when properly permitted, but we ask that they consider the anxiety that carrying a weapon may cause a young child when deciding whether to open carry a weapon on school grounds," the letter said.
Marek also said he carries his firearm within the law's restrictions, which means his firearm is visible when required.
"In order for us to be legal, we have to open carry, which then causes the irrational fear of the tool, and that can cause people to go into panic," Marek said.
TCAPS Executive Director of Human Resources Chris Davis said there have been four instances during the current school year when someone openly carried a firearm at TCAPS facilities.
"Each of the people that were open carrying were talked with and left the campus," Davis said. "There was no need for action with law enforcement or a lockdown."
Grand Traverse County Sheriff's deputies were called to an elementary school track meet last week because of someone openly carrying a firearm, Cousins said. The person had a valid CPL and was doing nothing illegal.
"It startled people, but it's lawful," Sheriff's Lt. Brian Giddis said.
Cousins said district officials asking people not to carry firearms into any school, even if they have a CPL. He said schools may go into lockdown mode if someone with a gun enters the building. Officials then would leave it to law enforcement to determine if the person is a threat.
"I think common sense determines that you don't bring a weapon into a school," Cousins said. "It's frightening to children, it's very unsettling to staff members and it serves no purpose in advancing the education of our kids or the work that our teachers are doing."
Phillip Hofmeister is president of Members of Michigan Open Carry, Inc., a statewide organization that advocates for the lawful open carry of a holstered handgun in Michigan. He said a private citizen or advocacy group such as Michigan Open Carry could take a local school district to circuit court if board members tried to restrict someone's legal right to open carry.
"Case law probably says that a school board can't do anything about it," Hoffmeister said.
Open carry policy has been discussed at TCAPS human resources and board policy committee meetings several times since January, but the board has not changed any policy.
"It puts staff in a difficult position because they spend time teaching our students that if they see a gun to alert officials so that action can be taken to protect everyone," Hall said. "But in light of the state law, staff's hands are tied."