Grasping at School Safety Straws

Too many politicians, school administrators, and parents grasp at straws when it comes to addressing school security.  In their fear and anxiety about safety, they rush to adopt “solutions” that not only fail to make schools safer, they sometimes do more harm than good.

An article published by Citylab this week focuses needed attention on one such school safety “solution”: clear plastic backpack requirements for students.  Proponents say such backpacks make it more difficult to conceal weapons and other contraband in schools.  

The clamor for clear backpack policies in schools is a good example of the tendency to grasp at straws when it comes to school safety:

  • They don’t prevent concealed weapons: It doesn’t take a criminal mastermind to see how trivially easy it is to hide anything from e-cigarettes to knives to a gun in any clear backpack that also has books, folders, pencil bags, and other things in it.  So such backpacks don’t even accomplish their ONE purpose. 
  • They don’t make schools safer: Experts have compared the safety of schools with clear backpack policies to other schools.  Those comparisons show zero evidence that clear backpack policies improve safety (for example, this study). They simply don’t work.

Despite these facts, mandating clear backpacks still has its supporters.  But the story is worse than the fact that the benefits of clear backpacks are a mirage.  Their use can actually make things worse in schools:

  • They mask real security issues:  Forcing students to use clear backpacks allows decision-makers to “do something” about school safety, without tackling the much tougher issues that can lead to real school security improvements.  They are a way to tell parents and the public that a district is serious about school safety without actually improving school safety.
  • They exaggerate the safety threat: Clear backpacks lead people to grossly overestimate safety threats in schools.  They send the misleading message that students are under constant threat, from every one of their peers.  The result is unnecessary and unfounded anxiety and fear that ultimately leads to schools that are less safe.

I’m not aware of any plans to require clear backpacks in the East Penn Schools.  But clear backpacks are just one example of many false “solutions” being sold to school districts and the public. And they are a reminder of our need for clear-eyed and long-term approaches to school security, not just frantic grasping at straws in the aftermath of the next tragedy to hit the news.

Check out the original article that inspired this post: CityLab- The Empty Promise of the Clear Plastic Backpack

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