Heightened school safety concerns bring backpack bans

30 Aug 2018 | 04:33

BY ERIKA NORTON
After the deadly school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February, the district implemented a new backpack policy — only clear backpacks allowed.
While the district has since ended that policy due to the planned installation of metal detectors, other schools across the country are re-evaluating their student backpack policies with safety in mind.
Some schools have taken the step to implement a clear backpack policy, including East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School in Nassau County, N.Y., North East Independent School District in Texas, Watson B. Duncan Middle School in Florida, Carter County Schools in Tennessee and the Jones County School District in Georgia.
Most local school districts do not require clear backpacks, but many do not allow backpacks to be worn by students throughout the school day as a safety measure, but also for number of other reasons.
No backpacks during the dayAt Monroe-Woodbury Middle School, the student handbook was recently changed to prohibit the use of backpacks during the school day. The change was made for three main reasons, according to Principal Michael Maesano: student health, hallway congestion and school safety.
“We’ve looked at some of the research from The American Academy of Pediatrics that children shouldn’t be carrying more than 10 percent of their body weight on their back,” Maesano said. “We know for a fact in weighing the backpacks that kids were wearing that they were well over 10 percent of their body weight, and that can cause physical determinants in this time period in which they’re growing quite a bit.”
Another consideration was the crowding in the hallways, Maesano said. Because of their large size, the backpacks occupied the space of an additional person.
Monroe-Woodbury has a large middle school population — almost 1,700 students and over 240 faculty and staff — according to Maesano, so having the hallways doubled in population because of backpacks made congestion issues serious, to where kids were getting bumped into, faculty were getting bumped into, as well as creating fire safety concerns as far obstacles being on the classroom floors and in the hallways when trying to evacuate the building.
“Our third concern was more along the lines of school safety and the fear of contraband being stored on people because of backpacks, whether that is drugs or alcohol related, vaping is a serious issue right now in all schools, as well as the potential for a weapon to be stored in a backpack,” Maesano said.
To test it out, last year, the middle school piloted a four-week period where students were not allowed to carry backpacks during the school day, Maesano said. While some students weren’t exactly thrilled with the new rule, teachers and those who work in the building were overwhelmingly in favor of the change and felt like it improved the atmosphere of the hallways.
“It’s gone really well as far as keeping the classrooms and hallways safe and clear and not congested, as well as I think just in general people feel safer,” Maesano said. “Kids are carrying their books, and we can see who's carrying their books and who's not carrying their books. It makes it very easy for our safety officers to monitor situations and make sure that kids are safe and people who belong in the buildings belong in the buildings.
“So overall I think it's done a bit in improving the safety and at least the feeling and perception of safety in our buildings at all times.”
While this is a step in the right direction, unfortunately in the world we live in, Maesano said that if somebody is absolutely determined to come in and do bad things to kids, the school has to stop them before they’re in the building. The backpack policy doesn’t necessarily help with that threat, but for more minor things such as vaping, the occasional pocket knife left in the backpack from the weekend, or something like that, those types of risks are now greatly diminished by not having backpacks at all.
At Monroe-Woodbury High School, backpacks are still allowed to be used throughout the day due to the four-story size of the building and wider hallways that mitigate congestion.
Other local schoolsOther schools in the area have similar policies when it comes to carrying backpacks during school, including Sparta Middle School in Sparta, N.J. According to Principal Michael Gregory, backpacks are to be kept in student lockers throughout the day.
Similarly at Chester Academy in Chester, N.Y., backpacks and large book bags are not permitted in the hallways during the school day, except prior to homeroom, after homeroom, after school, and for sixth-graders, during period 11. According to Superintendent Sean Michel, backpacks and large book bags must be stored in student lockers at all other times.
Due to the renewed focus on school safety, most schools said they discuss ways to improve upon their security and safety measures.
Michel said that Chester Academy administration meets regularly with faculty and student representatives to discuss the need for any changes throughout the school year.
Gregory also said they continually re-evaluate safety and security measures in all aspects of the Sparta Middle School building.
Maesano said that he doesn’t believe Monroe-Woodbury Middle School would enact a clear backpack policy because it wouldn’t alleviate the concerns about hallway congestion and the effect on student health that heavy backpacks can cause. Also, requiring clear backpacks is a costly decision.
“I understand why districts would do it, and I don’t fault them for it, and certainly in smaller districts that might be a more reasonable approach,” Maesano said, “but with almost 1,700 students in our building and over 240 faculty and staff, there’s a lot of people and getting rid of backpacks has made it a lot easier to get around through the hallways.”