Backpack rule reveals a sad message to the students

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IT IS THE first day of school, and my daughter will need a new backpack.

As it is for most high school girls, a backpack is a fashion purchase - as opposed to something that comes under the heading of school supplies. It is hard to imagine, I know, but there is such as thing as the "wrong" backpack.

This year, however, everyone at Annapolis High School will be carrying the same backpack, or they will carry none at all.

New principal Deborah Williams has ruled that only clear backpacks may be carried in the halls of the school.

"It is real simple," Williams said of her decision. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

"We will not allow students the opportunity to engage in any activity that will not lend to a safe and orderly environment," she said.

"We want them to know that we are paying attention to what they are doing."

The backpack announcement produced a great deal of indignant harrumphing among Jessie and her friends.

Whatever message the administration hoped to deliver with this announcement, the students heard only this one:

"They think we are going to bring guns to school," the kids concluded.

Williams said that this was not the case. The administration doesn't want cigarettes, alcohol or drugs hiding in backpacks, either. Not to mention GameBoys or CD players.

"I am not thinking they will come through with weapons or drugs, but it is a deterrent to that," Williams said.

The new rule applies to as wide a range of students as you might find under one high school roof.

The town that is known as the sailing capital of the East Coast is also home to 10 public housing communities.

Kids with their own SUVs attend Annapolis High with kids who never had fathers at home.

It has one of the highest drop-out rates in the county, but also sends 86 percent of its students to college, many to the finest schools in the country.

After a period of racial tension and some hallway rough stuff a decade or more ago, Annapolis High had settled into a prolonged period of calm - so much so that families who had fled the school's feeder system for private schools were returning in noticeable numbers. They could no longer ignore the educational value Annapolis High had become.

Still, some of my private school friends continued to ask bluntly if I was not afraid for my children at Annapolis High. I could honestly say that I was not. More important, my children were not afraid, either.

Now those same friends will read in the newspaper or hear at the bus stop that Annapolis kids are required to carry clear backpacks.

And they will come to the same conclusion Jessie and her friends did: Guns.

"As an instructional leader, I want a safe and orderly environment for learning," said Williams. "I want to be preventative, not responsive."

Clear backpacks appear to have begun as a fashion innovation in the early 1990s. But after school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., Paducah, Ky., and at Columbine in Littleton, Colo., they became a safety measure in some schools.

The Maryland Department of Education doesn't keep track of such things, but its student service department said that it was aware of clear backpacks being required in some Baltimore City schools. A spokesman did say, too, that Annapolis High is not considered one of the state's "persistently dangerous" schools by any measure kept.

The irony is, as just about any high school student might tell you, the losers and the troublemakers don't carry any backpacks.

They arrive in the classroom with a pencil behind their ears or a chip on their shoulders - but no backpacks.

Only metal detectors at the doors and strip searches can keep contraband out of schools, and even these measures are no guarantee against a determined troublemaker. Clear backpacks offer a false - and almost silly - statement about security.

And the clear backpacks make a very profound statement to the students: We don't trust you. We don't believe in you. We expect you to break our most serious rules.

It also says this to the students: You cannot trust your classmates. Your school is not safe.

The problem with clear backpacks is, the teachers are not the only ones who can see through them.

The kids can see through them, too.

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