An Associated Press story published in Saturday’s LNP reported that companies such as “Guard Dog Security, TuffyPacks and Bullet Blocker are peddling bullet-resistant backpacks for children in time for the back-to-school shopping season.” Critics, the AP noted, “argue they are using tragedy as a marketing opportunity and exploiting parents’ worst fears.” TuffyPacks shields — lightweight armor inserts that can be placed in ordinary backpacks — range from $129 to $149. Skyline’s ProShield Scout backpacks for children — in colors such as hot pink and teal — cost $120 each. Others cost nearly $300.
The marketing of bullet-resistant backpacks does indeed exploit parents’ fears about mass school shootings like the one that devastated the Parkland, Florida, community in February 2018.
Perusing the websites selling these backpacks, reading their promises to keep your child safe, it can be easy to tell yourself that $210 really isn’t that much for a tie-dyed Bullet Blocker backpack that offers, in the words of one testimonial, “peace of mind.”
Such peace of mind is elusive, particularly after the Aug. 3 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas — on a day when the store was filled with back-to-school shoppers.
Here’s the reality, though: Bullet-resistant backpacks won’t do much to protect children at school. As Greg Shaffer, a former FBI agent and a domestic terrorism expert, pointed out to the AP, children usually stash their backpacks in cubbies or lockers during the school day.
This is the clearest purpose served by bullet-resistant backpacks: They are emblems of the utter failure of grown-ups to adequately address gun violence. They are one more way in which we’re asking children to — literally — shoulder the burden of that failure.
When we were kids, going back to school meant shopping for No. 2 pencils and wide-ruled composition books. We felt nervous as the start of school neared, but excited, too. Our parents may have worried about schoolyard bullies, but they didn’t need to fear organ-shredding, bone-shattering bullets. They didn’t need to prepare us for lockdowns and intruder drills or teach us to silence our cellphones when we were locked in a classroom closet, hiding from a gunman.
Even had smartphones existed, our parents didn’t feel a pressing need to be able to reach us during the school day. The call parents dreaded the most was the one from the school nurse informing them of a lice outbreak in their child's classroom. An outbreak of gun violence? It was beyond their imagining.
Not so anymore.
While, in statistical terms, school shootings remain rare, our minds are filled with the images of them: of weeping parents and children clinging together in relief; wild-eyed parents searching desperately for their children; students exiting shooting scenes with their hands on their heads to signal they’re unarmed; school parking lots swarming not with school buses but with SWAT teams, police cars, ambulances and news crews.
West Nickel Mines School, an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County. Columbine High School in Colorado. Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Santa Fe High School in Texas. Those are the names parents — and teens — carry in their heads as they prepare for the return to school (and a slew of college names besides).
As LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick reports today, Lancaster County schools are using state grants to improve the safety and well-being of students by upgrading intercom and school bus surveillance systems, offering trauma-informed staff training, and supporting a school resource officer in one district and a mental health social worker in another. We’d like to see more mental health social workers in county schools, more counseling for students and staff members alike.
But as the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas told us — and Lancaster County students affirmed in rallies, school walkouts and letters to the editor in the wake of the Parkland massacre — there needs to be sensible gun regulation, too.
“While my generation knows that stricter background checks, fewer bullets in a round and restrictions on the guns available to civilians won’t prevent all shootings,” Hempfield High School graduate Liz Bierly wrote in a Sunday LNP op-ed published 11 days after Parkland, “we also know and hope that these will ensure that students grow up in a safer system than we did.”
In a letter to the editor published that same day, Caleb Blackwell, of Mount Joy, wrote that among the reforms he and other students were seeking were “stringent background checks,” and bans on large-capacity ammunition-feeding devices and “any accessory that increases the rate of fire of a firearm.” “In addition,” he wrote, “we want private sales to be restricted and to reserve all firearm sales to store sales, so background checks and waiting periods can be instituted more consistently.”
Jenna Flatley, then a junior at Penn Manor High School, wrote, “We walk into classrooms thinking, ‘Is this room up too high to jump out of the window?’ 'Where is the best place to hide?'.. This is not OK. When is it time to say enough is enough? When is it time that everyone puts their political beliefs aside for the safety of children? ... Students are counting on you, as adults, to make a change and to take action. Will you?”
We’re sorry, Jenna, but the answer was clearly no.
We adults have not put aside our political differences to significantly improve the safety of children. We have not taken action to pass stronger background checks, though U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey hopes they’re a possibility now that 31 people were killed in two mass shootings in a single weekend earlier this month.
In the meantime, though, we can offer children bullet-resistant backpacks. But they’re pricey, and the cost includes our shame.