Michigan now has what backers say is the toughest weapon-free school law in the country. But the reaction among local school officials is mixed.

Taking effect Jan. 1 will be a law, signed by Gov. John Engler last week, to require the expulsion of any pupil who brings a gun or any other weapon onto school property.Officials at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver and Handgun Control Inc. in Washington said they knew of no other state with such a law.

Earlier this month, Congress passed a $13 billion education package that requires local school districts to adopt a one-year expulsion policy for students who bring guns to school. However, local officials could alter the punishment on a case-by-case basis, and Congress attached no penalty to schools that don't comply.

Even before state and federal action, some schools had gotten tough on their own.

"We already had that policy," said Robert Fortin, superintendent of Coopersville schools. "Our policy is probably stronger than the governor's, but that doesn't make it any easier.

"We had two kids who were not allowed to go to any school in our district, yet where were they going to go?" he said. "Where do you put a seventh-grader and a sixth-grader?"

One of the students was expelled in January and moved to Texas to live with his father; the other enrolled in a nearby district, Fortin said.

"I know the intent of the law and I certainly understand it. The concern I have for that is the same concern for our own policy: Where do these kids go and what do you do with them?"

Carol Powell, for one, applauds the new law.

A seventh-grade literature teacher in West Branch in central Michigan, Powell once talked a student into putting down the loaded gun he held pointed at her and a classroom full of children.

Once was enough, she said.

"We don't have the resources to deal with someone who's that violent or that troubled." Public school is "not where they belong," she said.

Dick Steele, director of public safety for the Grand Rapids school district, expressed concern for the expelled student.

"If that's all we do, and we don't follow up on why the kid has that gun and what's going on in the family, we haven't gotten anywhere.

"We have to deal with more rather than just a cold, hard, kick-them-out and forget about it."

With anti-crime measures a guaranteed hit with voters, politicians were happy to pass it.

"This bill makes it possible for our law-abiding teachers and students to take back their schools. Now a weapon-toting punk can be permanently expelled from mainstream public schools in Michigan," Engler said.

The Republican governor, seeking re-election this year, also has proposed spending $40 million on a new "punk prison" for violent juvenile offenders.

But the school weapons law isn't quite as tough as it sounds.

Expelled students in fifth grade or lower could appeal the decision after 60 days and could be readmitted after 90 days.

Older students could seek readmission 90 days after expulsion and could re-enroll after missing 180 days.

Readmission would be based on several factors, including the risk to students and staff, the district's risk of liability, the student's age and maturity, their behavior before expulsion and their attitude about being kicked out.

Justin King, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, said the new law will satisfy federal moves to get gun-carrying kids out of schools. "I think what we've done is more stringent," he said.