Richmond County Daily Journal

Bulletproof backpacks a sign of the times for endangered kids

Many, many things in education have changed, but one ritual that has remained the same, one that still elicits excitement among even the most reluctant back-to-school participants happens also to be my favorite: school supplies shopping.

Oh, the smell of crayons. The crisp feel of an unused spiral notebook. The inviting blankness of fresh paper.

I loved school supplies when I was a kid and treasured them when my children were young. These days, I still buy the obligatory packet of pencils and the ream of loose-leaf wide-rule paper for when the grandchildren do homework at my house, though now most assignments, from i-Ready to Wordly Wise, are performed online.

But homework on the computer isn’t the only thing different. This year, media are reporting on a trend in back-to-school shopping that I should’ve predicted but didn’t. Though some would consider the item practical, I find it alarming — a troubling sign of our times.

Parents are buying bulletproof backpacks. Worried about school safety, feeling helpless over the sluggish reaction of elected officials on gun control, moms and dads want to do something — anything! — to protect their kids.

One company, Guard Dog Security in Sanford, Florida, makes the ProShield II backpacks, which offer bulletproof protection with the very practical features of a charging bank or built-in auxiliary ports. Peace of mind, or at least something close to it, comes at a price — $189.99.

Another company, Bullet Blocker, makes backpacks as well as bulletproof binder inserts and tablet cases. It has been making the backpacks since 2007, after the Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 dead. Company founder Joe Curran had two kids in middle school at the time and was incredulous when he found out that their school’s active-shooter response was a simple “hide and wait for the police.” A former deputy sheriff and firearms instructor, Curran thought he could do better and, if requests from other parents are any indication, he was right.

When you think how many times we’ve been assaulted by senseless scenes of panicked students fleeing classrooms and SWAT teams patrolling hallways with pointed guns, you’ll recognize that maybe, just maybe parents aren’t overreacting. About one-quarter of the 160 U.S. mass shooting incidents between 2000 and 2013 occurred in schools or colleges, according to a report by the FBI and Texas State University. And the names of those institutions now stand as shorthand for campus horror: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Sandy Hook Elementary. Columbine. Virginia Tech.

The public sector has reacted to these tragedies, too. Some states have increased financing for school safety, including such measures as metal detectors and shatterproof building materials. In Florida, for instance, school districts must comply with a new law that requires a sworn officer or a trained, armed guard to be on school grounds. Wisconsin legislators financed a $100 million grant program for building safety improvements and staff training. And in Pennsylvania, the new state budget provides a 700 percent increase from the $8.5 million provided last year for school safety and security.

Even the feds have jumped in with their own idea: a new $1.8 million grant for a program that will teach high school students “mass casualty survival techniques” in the event of a school shooting. Sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, the School-Age Trauma Training program will offer medical triage and bleeding-control techniques to high school students. The grant announcement says it is “similar to how students learn health education and driver’s education.”

I’ve always envisioned school as the vaunted center for the joys and struggles of learning, but our campuses have long ceased to be only about that. Schools now provide food for hungry students, lessons on stranger danger and, increasingly, an introduction to the perils of modern life. They have become the place where many of our children now worry about death by gun. How tragic.

It makes the rest of us almost nostalgic for the snot-nosed bully who threatened to take our lunch money, once upon a time.

Ana Veciana-Suarez Veciana-Suarez

Ana Veciana-Suarez is a syndicated columnist and author of several books. She also has earned a National Headliner, a Clarion Award, a Green Eyeshade and two Sunshine State Awards. Veciana-Suarez lives in Miami with her family. The Tribune News Service distributes her column.