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When students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School return from spring break today, they will reportedly have to wear clear backpacks and identification badges. On Valentine’s Day, that campus in Parkland, Florida, became the site of one of the nation’s largest school shootings, and the new guidelines have been implemented to prevent more violence of that magnitude from occurring.
Other school districts, such as Ennis Independent near Dallas, also recently decided to ban opaque book bags. But the trend is not new. In fact, in 2014, an article on District Administration, a website for school officials, explored the clear-backpack debate. It noted how school districts, including Dallas Independent and Chicago Public, required students to wear clear or mesh book bags following several incidents of youth bringing guns and knives to class.
“The idea is that clear bags will act as a deterrent and make it harder for someone to bring a weapon on campus,” a spokeswoman for North East Independent, a San Antonio, Texas, school district, explained of their appeal.
As far back as 2004, Franklin Regional School District in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, banned solid-colored book bags. But in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting that resulted in 17 casualties, some students balk at the idea of transparent bags. They argue that they’re an “invasion of privacy” and make school “feel like prison.” There’s also serious doubt as to whether clear backpacks will really stop the next school shooting, especially since the assailants in these cases are not always currently enrolled in the institutions they target.
Racked spoke with Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, about whether clear backpacks really filter out weapons from schools or if bulletproof backpacks can protect students should a shooting occur. A nonprofit organization, Safe Havens has helped school systems worldwide with crisis preparedness and campus safety for more than a decade. In addition, Dorn is a former police officer who has written more than 27 books on school safety, emergency preparedness, and bullying. Here’s what he had to say.
Schools have enforced the clear-backpack rule well before 17 students were fatally gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last month. But since the shooting, interest in these backpacks has intensified. Is this just hysteria, or are these backpacks actually effective?
We’ve worked in every state. We’ve assessed more than 6,000 schools; we’ve worked on over 300 catastrophic events and 13 active shooter cases. I say this to say that out of all that, I rarely recommend clear backpacks for K-12.
They [students] very typically just hide the weapon inside something in the bookbag. They take a book and hollow it out and put a gun in the book. This is not an anomaly. It’s a repeatedly used method. They buy all of these different containers and put the gun in there, or they put it in a tennis shoe or wrap the gun in their gym shorts. They get a rifle and put it in a musical instrument case.
Do you think it would have made any difference if the schools where mass shootings occurred had a clear-backpack policy or metal detectors?
The biggest thing with the clear backpack is that if a student comes in who doesn’t have a clear backpack, it’s noticeable. But there are multiple entry points into school, and some people have shot their way into schools. If you’ve got proper metal detection with armed security, it will likely be effective in keeping a school shooting from happening. But metal detectors are not feasible for the majority of schools. They are really expensive.
So why are school districts so keen to force clear backpacks on kids, especially when some Stoneman Douglas students object to the rule change? They consider it an invasion of privacy.
Whenever we have some of these catastrophic events that involved a student, there’s usually a short surge of interest [in clear backpacks]. We see a lot of schools or districts do it for a while, but then the clear plastic ones tear apart. Also, unless you very much restrict what’s allowed in the backpack, like no textbooks, the clear book bag doesn’t have much of a purpose.
What alternatives do you recommend?
Dress code. If you require shirts tucked into pants and no overlapping clothing over a belt where you could hide a gun, we’ve seen weapons in schools drop to zero. This is going back to the 1990s. A dress code is a lot more demanding of students. Not all of them liked it, but they accepted it. Kind of like I don’t like taking my shoes off at the airport, but the alternative is not very palatable.
Let’s switch gears — from clear backpacks to bulletproof backpacks. Do you recommend them?
We think that’s a dangerous approach based on the information we’ve seen from doctors. It’s 12 to 15 pounds of extra weight. If you give the child the ballistic book bags, you’re almost certain to create back problems for your child. Also, you have kids wondering where they’ll be if a shooting occurs. ‘Will I have the backpack with me, or will I be in the lunchroom? Will I be at recess?’ It sounds really good in theory until you remember that a fourth grader is not a Navy Seal. I’ve got a 9-year-old. I would never give him a ballistic backpack.
Also, the backpacks are very limited on what they can stop. Most of the shooters have used assault-style rifles. The backpacks won’t stop rounds from those types of guns, and many won’t stop even the more potent handgun rounds.
I was watching the news after the Parkland shooting, and a segment came on about parents giving their kids watch-like devices to wear to school as protection. Are you familiar with these gadgets?
Yes, there’s a range of these devices, a whole bunch of them. You put your hands on the app, and it will call 911. It will give the police your GPS coordinates. They will get help to you faster, but the biggest thing that will protect you is your awareness of your surroundings.
I have a much higher comfort level with those devices than with the backpacks. If you combine good situational awareness with technology, that’s great. But a lot of assaults are literally measured in seconds. I’ve worked homicides that were four seconds, eight seconds, 10 seconds long, and the whole event is over with. Mass shootings might last a few minutes. But if you wait until you’re being attacked [to use one of these devices], the attack will be over with before help arrives.
What’s your advice to people who are simply terrified now?
The fear level — I’ve never seen it this high. That’s why we’re not getting practical solutions. You get this impression that this country is in a hellish cycle of violence, but from 1970 to 1990, we lost twice as many people to homicide as we have in the last 15 years. We also have… [almost] as many people in schools as the population of France, and more than the populations of Canada or Australia. We’re ignoring that 96 percent of students [and staff killed in schools] are not killed in an active shooter situation. Fights in school that turn deadly — those can be the precursor to homicide in school.
Forty-five percent of homicides on school property involve interpersonal disputes. They are mostly fights between students, but they also include [significant others of staff] coming to school and killing them. But most of our experience involves fights between students. If you have 50 fights on your campus, and you can reduce it to 10, you can very dramatically lower the chances that someone’s going to be killed or injured with a weapon.