Baring your backpack to bolster school safety

Wissahickon High will join other institutions this fall in permitting only clear or mesh bags in the hallways.

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It has come to this in the quest for safe schools: Cloth backpacks, for decades a fixture in the lives of most high school students, will be banned from the hallways of Montgomery County's Wissahickon High School starting this fall.

If students walking between classes want to use a backpack, it must be made of clear plastic or mesh so its contents can be seen at a glance. Cloth backpacks can be carried into the school in the morning but must be stored in lockers.

Wissahickon is the most recent district to mandate see-through backpacks, joining several other area suburban districts and private schools as they look to avert tragedies like the 1999 gun killings at Columbine and last December's gunshot suicide by a student inside Montgomery County's Springfield Township High School.

The move has unleashed a torrent of protest from some Wissahickon students, who say high schools are coming to resemble "prisons or police states," in the words of one.

Through an online group called "Hell No I'm Not Wearing a See-Through Backpack," many are organizing a resistance campaign, with proposals including petitions, protest T-shirts, a "day of silence" when school opens, and mass refusals to wear the new gear.

"We see it as an invasion of our personal space and privacy," said Joe Salvo, the organizer of the online group and a Wissahickon High sophomore. "It's the idea that our rights are going to be slowly taken away in the name of safety that bothers me. . . . How far are they willing to take this?"

Suburban school officials are equally adamant that they must adopt more stringent measures to ensure safety.

Urban districts such as Philadelphia, Chester and Camden say they already use X-ray machines and metal detectors to scan all students and belongings for weapons.

After the Springfield shooting, a safety task force was convened in Montgomery County by District Attorney Bruce Castor; this month, it came out with 13 pages of recommendations for schools, including using clear or mesh backpacks.

Tipping point

The committee recommendation "was probably the tipping point" in going with the idea at Wissahickon High, said principal William Hayes. "I have also been at several safe-schools conferences, and one of the things a lot of experts recommend is looking at how kids are bringing things to school."

Districts have the legal right to impose safety restrictions on students, experts say.

Hayes said he considered simply banning backpacks during the day at the 1,580-student school, as several Montgomery County districts - Pottstown, Springfield and Upper Perkioman - already do. The Twin Valley school district in Chester County and Deptford Township in Gloucester County, New Jersey, also don't allow backpacks during school.

But Wissahickon students objected to an all-out ban, saying it was too difficult for them to carry books from one end of campus to the other. The clear or mesh bag was the alternative, Hayes said.

"We can't control everything," Hayes said. "We all recognize that if a kid or an adult is intent on doing something, there's not a lot we can do about it. But we are hoping that at least during the school day, this will make kids think twice about doing something inappropriate."

(The bags are readily available from several online stores for about $20, Hayes said.)

Students' opinions

Some parents and students support the idea or see it, at worst, as an inconvenience. Before a football practice last week at the high school, sophomore Brian Corliss noted that mesh or clear backpacks are required at his former high school, Archbishop Carroll, and that he didn't see it as "that much of a big deal."

Banning cloth backpacks also doesn't unduly invade his privacy because "you shouldn't have to be hiding something in school anyway," Corliss said.

His mother, Kathleen Corliss, said that "it's a sad day and age when most of the kids are doing fine but you have to do this for 2 or 3 percent. But look at what happened last year in Springfield. If this makes it one step harder for one person to do something wrong, that is what we want."

Many of Corliss' teammates disagreed. A dozen crowded around a reporter, saying they opposed the new policy.

Brandon Hemmen, a senior, said the clear bags will make it easy for thieves who already rip off students every day. And "bags will get mixed up; we'll have to use name tags," he added. "This is wrong. They can't take all our freedoms away."

Hayes, the principal, when asked about stealing, said that iPods and cell phones are not supposed to be carried anyway. "This may actually cut down on theft," he said. Students can keep personal items in purses or small bags, he said.

Several Philadelphia Archdiocesan schools - Carroll, Father Judge in Philadelphia, Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills and Archbishop Wood in Warminster - also have started to require clear or mesh backpacks in the hallways in recent years, said archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Farrell. "It has worked well; there's been no resistance," she said.

Montgomery County's Souderton Area High School instituted the policy in the fall of 1999, after the Columbine shootings. "It's part of the transition to the high school; kids know about it and accept it," said the district's pupil services director, Frank Gallagher.

At Pottsgrove High School, also in Montgomery County, clear or mesh backpacks came in after a rash of bomb threats and evacuations in 2001. Students there cannot bring cloth backpacks into the school; plastic or mesh bags must be stashed in lockers before the school day begins.

Students say they accept the idea. "It's for our safety," said Katie Stonehouse, a senior, as she showed off her mesh bag at the school last week. "Someone could hide something in it, but at least it makes it harder."

Classmate Niija Wood agreed. "We carry our purses for personal things we don't want people to see," she said.

Some parents and students at Wissahickon question whether the switch to mesh or clear bags really will make schools safer, since students can still take cloth backpacks to their lockers and can go back to them during the school day. Jackie Bain, the mother of a senior, said in an e-mail that she appreciates the safety attempt, but "I really don't understand how they intend to prevent someone from bringing some sort of 'contraband' into the school short of using metal detectors or inspectors at every entrance."

Her daughter Kaci agreed. "I don't think it will make a difference. People will find a way to get things in and it will just penalize the students that are good," she said.

Kenneth Trump, a national security consultant who advised the Springfield district after the suicide last fall, said last week that "there is no panacea" for safety concerns.

"Is it going to guarantee that a weapon can't get in? No. Even in prisons, with all the searches there, we still have weapons, drugs, gangs and murder." But, he added, "collectively, [security measures] create a climate conducive to safety and orderliness and raise the consciousness of students and staff about safety issues."


Video helps push school uniforms

In Montgomery County's Pottstown school district, when the debate about school uniforms heated up last fall, a short but eye-popping video clip about weapons concealed beneath a young man's shirt, posted on the district's Web site, helped administrators make their case.

After months of debate, last week the school board passed a policy making uniforms voluntary starting this fall and mandatory the year after that.

Pottstown is not the only place that used the video in that way. In recent years, when school administrators or law-enforcement officials get together to talk about students bringing weapons into schools, often the buzz is about "the video with the kid pulling the weapons out of his pants."

The minute-long clip, posted on the Web site of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit Georgia-based school safety center, shows a young man dressed in blue jeans with a loose shirt hanging over his belt. As a voice talks about how a lax dress policy makes it easy for students to conceal weapons, he pulls guns of increasing size, from tiny derringers to a shotgun, out of his pants - 12 in all.

The clip, part of a much longer public-safety training video, was used in the 2002 movie Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore's documentary about gun ownership in America, without permission, said Safe Havens International executive director Michael Dorn. The young man in the video is his son Chris, he said.

The clip has migrated to YouTube and has been e-mailed to countless others.

Pottstown may well be the first area suburban district to require uniforms for high school students, officials say.

Delaware County's Chester Upland requires them as does Camden. Some Philadelphia high schools also have them, district officials said.

School uniforms were one of the safety recommendations issued this monthby a Montgomery County school safety committee that District Attorney Bruce Castor pulled together.

Critics say the video focuses too much on the "wow factor" and not enough on long-term solutions for school violence. Others disagree.

"It's pretty eye-opening. It forces you to think about the possibilities," said John Armato, Pottstown spokesman.

"It's very difficult in our climate of student rights to impose a dress code, but if parents saw that video, maybe they would come to school districts and ask us to put one in place," said Sharon Richardson, a former Pottsgrove district superintendent who now works at the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit. "Its very powerful. They should see it."


To see the video and more on school safety, go to http://go.philly.com/schoolsafety


Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 610-701-7638 or dhardy@phillynews.com.


Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 610-701-7638 or dhardy@phillynews.com.