After rowdy town hall, Broward school board tilts against clear backpacks

WLRN | By Kate Payne | June 13, 2023

In a raucous town hall meeting Monday night, scores of Broward County students, parents and educators urged school district officials not to require clear backpacks next school year. The proposal now appears to be unpopular with school board members as well — by the end of the town hall, a majority of the board said they’re opposed to the measure.

Attendees were not allowed to bring bags into the school safety town hall at Plantation High School on Monday June 12, 2023 — although some school board members and journalists were able to bring in bags. Kate Payne / WLRN /

It was a full house at the Plantation High School Auditorium, where attendees overwhelmingly argued against clear backpacks and school uniforms and instead demanded more investments in metal detectors, security staff, social workers and mental health providers.

“If a student wants to do harm, this is not going to stop them. A weapon can be easily hidden between books, folders, wrapped in aluminum foil in your so-called clear lunch bag or in their clothes,” said parent Anile Diaz. “I would rather see metal detectors at every point of entry.”

More than 150 people signed up to speak and tensions were high — many of the speakers yelled at board members, their speeches punctuated by cheers and applause from the crowd.

Brian Darocha is a parent of a middle schooler who has special needs. Like many, he spoke of the importance of student privacy and the risk of bullying.

Darocha explained that his daughter sometimes has bathroom accidents, so he sends her to school with baby wipes and a change of clothes in her bag.

“These are not things that I want the [general population] to see and cause additional harshness for her,” Darocha said as the crowd roared with applause.

A handful of public speakers argue for clear backpacks

Some Broward County Public Schools officials say the proposal is needed to make it easier to spot prohibited items. Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley had previously called the measure a “game-changer”.

The number of weapons found on campus has been on the rise over the past five years, according to district stats. Random metal detector searches put into effect last year have helped but it’s not enough, said Craig Kowalski, chief of the district’s police force.

“Out of all the items we found, 99% of them were in a backpack or a bag,” Kowalski said. “Are we doing everything we can possibly do?”

A couple of current BCPS students spoke in support of the proposal, like Briana Whatley of Miramar High School.

“Last year a student decided to bring a loaded gun on campus. I remember that morning very vividly,” she said. “I don’t see this as a punishment. I see clear book bags as a compromise to ensure safety for all students, teachers and staff.”

The walls of the auditorium were covered with posters showing statistics on weapons found in Broward County Public Schools in recent years, as well as tobacco use by students. Kate Payne / WLRN /

‘What about bulletproof backpacks?’

The proposal remains unpopular, as it was in the wake of the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where officials temporarily required students to use clear backpacks.

Among those opposed to the district-wide proposal is School Board Chair Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was murdered at MSD in 2018.

“I send my two boys to school with a bulletproof backpack,” Alhadeff said. “I am against having clear backpacks for our students. It’s a false sense of security.”

Members of the Broward County School Board listen to speakers at a school safety town hall at Plantation High School. By the end of the meeting, a majority of board members said they were opposed to requiring clear backpacks next year. Kate Payne / WLRN /

MSD students protested the move five years ago, stuffing their clear bags with feminine hygiene products and signs calling for gun control. One student even filled up their backpack with water and a fish, turning it into a portable fish tank, according to reporting by The Eagle Eye, MSD’s school newspaper.

Echoing arguments made in 2018, critics at the town hall characterized the proposal as both overbearing and inadequate — a major invasion of student privacy, they said, that wouldn’t be effective at meeting the district’s larger goal of keeping weapons out of Broward County Public Schools.

“I think there are other solutions that should be implemented instead, like gun control that our gutless politicians are refusing to do anything about,” said Ozan Gunay, the parent of two BCPS high schoolers. “My greatest fear everyday is that they won’t come home after school — but this is not the way to keep them safe.”

After two hours of full-throated public criticism, school board members weighed in.

Chair Lori Alhadeff, Vice Chair Debbi Hixon, and Members Brenda Fam, Sarah Leonardi and Nora Rupert said they were opposed to clear backpacks. Members Torey Alston, Daniel Foganholi, Jeff Holness and Allen Zeman didn’t say how they might vote.

Hundreds of people attended the town hall meeting. The vast majority of speakers were opposed to the proposals for clear backpacks and uniforms. The event was rowdy, with audience members booing and cheering loudly, some yelling at school board members. Kate Payne / WLRN /

Town hall comes after school board held closed-door meeting

The district organized the meeting at Plantation High to gather feedback from the public, after critics railed against the policy, which was announced on May 5. Initially, the district presented the policy as a done deal, requiring all students to use clear backpacks and lunchboxes, beginning Aug. 21, 2023 — the first day of the 2023-2024 school year.

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, school board members decided to adopt the new policy during a closed-door security meeting, a discussion which may have violated the state’s public meetings laws.

In light of the public outcry, the district opted to host the town hall and the board will discuss the issue at a school board workshop on June 20 before taking a final vote during a public meeting on July 25.

Under the proposal, students would only be allowed to bring clear backpacks and bags on school campuses for grades pre-K through 12. Mesh and colored bags are not allowed, even if they’re transparent. The clear bag policy would not apply to school faculty, staff, volunteers and visitors.

The only other bags students would be able carry are:

  • a small non-transparent pouch for personal hygiene items
  • thermal food containers carried inside clear lunch boxes
  • school-approved sport-specific carrying case for athletic equipment
  • school-approved instrument-specific carrying case for band equipment

One of the chief complaints is that the policy is a restriction on student expression — leaving kids with one less way to bring joy, flair and personality into the school day.
“My son is going into kindergarten,” said parent Elizabeth Rivera, “and this may sound miniscule to you, but he wants to shop for a Spiderman backpack and a matching lunchbox.”

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