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More schools require clear backpacks amid fears of guns at schools | #schoolsaftey

When Asher Sheneman started kindergarten last year in Grand Rapids, he picked out a backpack that showcased two of his greatest loves: Super Mario Brothers and outer space. It featured Nintendo characters on a background decorated with stars. He adored it.

When Asher starts school Tuesday, he’ll swap his Super Mario bag for one with a lot less personality: a clear backpack with orange seams. After officials at his Michigan district recovered guns on middle and elementary school students four times last year, they temporarily banned backpacks. Now they are pushing students to carry clear ones. Chelsea Sheneman, Asher’s mother, decided to buy it despite her mixed feelings.

“I am glad that the school is trying something, anything,” said Sheneman. “It feels better, I guess, than just hearing about [the guns] and them sort of throwing up their hands and not doing anything.”

School backpacks were once a place where students could express their love for their favorite Disney princess, their allegiance to a band, their devotion to schoolwork and their fondness for doodling. But school officials on high alert for weapons or drugs increasingly view them as a safety concern. About 4 percent of public schools banned backpacks or required clear ones in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

At least 27 school districts in the past 18 months have started restricting backpacks, according to news reports. Though security experts are skeptical the measures make schools safer, they’ve become a common response to school shootings and to fears sparked by students showing up to school with guns.

For some, the clear backpacks are just another prop in school security theater — an answer that does little more than put adults at ease. Critics say it has come to symbolize the lengths decision-makers will go to avoid passing meaningful gun control, a knee-jerk answer to the call to “do something” after a tragedy. Supporters of these measures say that they could deter students from bringing weapons to school, even if they don’t stop them altogether.

The practice dates back to at least the 1990s, when a Kentucky high school banned backpacks after a school shooting. It now allows clear backpacks.

The number of school shootings has risen dramatically in the past three years, according to a Washington Post analysis. There were 46 school shootings in 2022, the most during any year since at least 1999. There have been 28 so far this year — and there are still at least four months of school left.

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The requirements often make exceptions for student-athletes and musicians, who have equipment that would not fit in a clear backpack. Many schools also permit students to carry a small opaque pouch inside their clear backpacks so students who get their periods don’t have to be embarrassed about toting around pads or tampons.

Officials in several Texas school districts began requiring clear backpacks in response to a shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead at an elementary school in Uvalde last year, even though they would have done nothing to stop the gunman. He was not a student and entered through a side door brandishing an AR-15 rifle that would not have fit in a backpack.

After a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, the school passed out clear backpacks for students to use. Many ridiculed the bags, saying they were an underwhelming response to the shooting in which the gunman, a former student, opened fire on classrooms with an AR-15 rifle. A clear backpack wouldn’t have stopped him. The following school year, the restriction was lifted.

Backpacks have played a role in other shootings. In 2021, a 15-year-old student at Oxford High in Michigan killed four classmates with a semiautomatic handgun he pulled from his backpack, officials said. And earlier this year, a first-grader in Newport News, Va., shot his teacher in the chest with a gun he had hidden in his jacket pocket and later in his backpack. Both districts instituted clear-backpack requirements.

A growing number of schools are also adopting them after students are caught with guns on campus. Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, a sprawling district with 131,000 students, imposed a clear-backpack requirement for high school students after several students were caught with guns and other weapons. Last year, two students were arrested at Suitland High School after bringing guns on the first day of classes, police said. On the first day of in-person summer school, a student was arrested after allegedly carrying a loaded gun at Central High School.

Michigan school district requires clear backpacks after shooting, a common step questioned by experts

The restrictions “make sense, and we’re going to follow suit here to make sure that we have the kind of safety we want to see,” said Superintendent Millard House II.

Emmanuel Thomas, 15, who was a freshman last school year at Suitland High, said the clear-backpack policy is “a smart move” but added that it could have the unintended effect of making students feel less safe. He said he wished the school system would get at the root of why young people come to school armed in the first place.

“The reason why people bring guns and stuff into the school is because everyone is mad at each other or beefing in some sort of way,” Emmanuel said.

The Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, which represents the district’s teachers, wrote in a statement that the clear-backpack policy “is not enough.” It proposed the school system have dedicated staff at each school whose sole responsibility is to address student behavior and to train all staff on restorative justice — an approach that invites students in conflict to talk through an issue to understand the harm caused, take responsibility and find ways to move forward.

Security experts are doubtful the bag restrictions can make much of a difference, given that a student who wants to smuggle a gun onto campus can still carry it in a waistband or hide it between books.

Jaclyn Schildkraut, an expert on school shootings who heads the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York, said young people often carry guns because they believe they need them to keep themselves safe — not because they intend to carry out a mass shooting.

“You have to address the underlying issue of what is making them want to carry in the first place,” Schildkraut said.

Schildkraut assailed clear-backpack requirements, saying they send students the wrong message and lull adults into a sense that they have done something useful.

“It’s making the adults feel better that something’s being done. But what messaging are you sending to the students?” she asked. “If it’s in response to something like a high-profile, rare instance of violence, you’re telling them either we don’t think your school is safe or we don’t trust you not to be the next perpetrator.”

2 Suitland students arrested on first day of school with guns, police say

Rebecca Lehmann, whose two children go to school in South Bend, Ind., echoed those concerns. She worries it’s too invasive, even for young children. The school her children attend also has uniforms, and she sees the rules as yet another way it squelches their expression.

“I don’t like that it teaches my kids that anyone can look through their possessions at any moment,” said Lehman, an English professor at St. Mary’s College. “These are the kind of policies that make parents think that their children are being treated like criminals.”

Dylan Luna, who serves on the Flint Board of Education in Michigan, said he reluctantly backed bag restrictions for the district after students were caught with guns on campus. This coming school year, middle and high school students will not be allowed to carry backpacks — most of their materials will be left at school — and students in younger grades will be able to carry clear backpacks.

Luna acknowledged the new requirement comes at a cost to students. It’s less privacy and more inconvenience, and it will be yet another facet of school that sets them apart from some wealthier districts.

“It always seems like urban kids — and Black kids — have to give up freedoms that their private school and suburban colleagues don’t,” Luna said. But in the end, his safety concerns won out. “I think keeping them safe is equally as important if not more important.”

The school board in Broward County, where Parkland is located, tried to pass a clear-backpack rule this spring. But it was so unpopular with parents and students — who criticized the board for not seeking their input — that it was scrapped.

Lincoln Miller, a 14-year-old journalist and rising freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, wrote a story about clear backpacks for Scholastic Kids Press. He said that many of the students he interviewed felt being forced to carry a clear bag was an invasion of their privacy and also infringed on their ability to express themselves.

“They were worried about their freedoms being taken away,” Lincoln said.

Board member Sarah Leonardi, who opposed the rule, said she would not have wanted to send a child out of the classroom for violating a clear-backpack policy that doesn’t make them safer. She also heard from parents of disabled students who have to carry things they want kept out of view, such as diapers or a change of clothes. And other parents said the clear backpacks would leave their child’s belongings — including pricey laptops and cellphones — in full view of the public, making them a target for robbery.

“I really didn’t see the benefits outweighing the negatives for doing this,” Leonardi said. “No one could provide me with any kind of data that it is an effective safety measure.”

Like many Americans, Sheneman, the mother in Grand Rapids, said she lives with a growing sense of unease that she or her children could be caught in a mass shooting — at school, or the movies, or the grocery store. The clear backpack seems like a small but tangible way she can contribute to help people feel safe.

“I don’t feel like it’s going to really do much,” said Sheneman. “But whatever is available to us, I will do.”

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