The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michigan school district requires clear backpacks after shooting, a common step questioned by experts

The move is one of several new safety measures being implemented after the Oxford attack

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) embraces Oakland County Executive David Coulter as they pay their respects in early December after the deadly shooting at Oxford High School. (Jake May/Flint Journal /AP)

Middle and high school students in a Michigan school district will be required to use clear backpacks on campus, one of numerous new safety measures announced weeks after a deadly school shooting at Oxford High School.

Clear backpacks will be provided for all middle- and high-schoolers, the district announced Wednesday in a message to the community.

Before some students returned to classrooms Monday, the district asked families not to send children to school with a regular backpack, because they would receive a clear bag. High school students, who have yet to return in person, will get the bags when they do. Oxford High School, where four people were killed in a Nov. 30 shooting, has not yet reopened.

Elementary school students will not be required to use the backpacks, but they will keep their bags in lockers or cubbies during the day.

“I know it was a different Christmas and holiday break for many of us,” Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne said in a video message. In his remarks, he said “safety — both physical and emotional — is at the top of our list” as the school year continues.

Oxford Community Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post on Tuesday.

The backpack policy is one of many new measures Oxford Community Schools has enacted, including the hiring of a security company that will put personnel in school buildings; providing trauma response training for staffers; continuing to have trauma specialists available for students; and having therapy dogs in every school.

Criminologists and school safety experts said such backpack rules are common after shootings and other tragic events, but some say the policy is not the best way to address the problems that lead to gun violence in schools.

Clear-backpack policies are a “very common security measure that happens in reaction to a school shooting,” said David Riedman, lead researcher for the K-12 School Shooting Database. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., implemented a similar policy after a shooting there left 17 people dead in 2018, Riedman said. He referred to similar backpack-related school policies after tragedies going back to 1993.

‘Please help me’: Kids with guns fueled a record number of school shootings in 2021

Schools are in an “impossible position right now, faced with rising threats of gun violence,” said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and a co-founder of the Violence Project.

Young people with guns drove a record number of school shootings last year — there were at least 42 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during regular hours, according to data tracked by The Post.

In the absence of policies that address the root of this violence, Densley said, schools may bolster security. “Only in America would we ban backpacks before we would do anything else to address the plague of gun violence in our society,” he said.

Schools “are in this position of having to do something, and they’ve got to try and build trust with parents and community members and be seen to be doing something about this,” he added.

The clear-backpack requirement often is one visible signal meant to show schools are taking safety seriously, experts said.

“Families and community members are demanding more security procedures, and it’s much easier to put something in place like a clear-backpack policy and have that be seen,” said Deborah Temkin, a school safety expert with the youth-focused research organization Child Trends. “Putting in a new curriculum or mental health supports, that may not be as visible to the outside community.”

And it’s a signal that may help in some ways.

It could be reassuring for students, Densley said: “Almost like a placebo effect. ‘I can see inside, and there’s not a gun there. That makes me feel safe.’ ”

On the other hand, he said, it could remind them “that this was the site of a school shooting. … Constantly reminding them of the fact that classmates were victims of violence could be re-traumatizing.”

Temkin said it was “not surprising” that the school district would include the backpack policy in recent measures. She noted an analysis Child Trends published in 2020 that said at the state level, “most school safety laws passed after high-profile school shooting incidents primarily focus on preparing for, not preventing, such events.”

How can schools detect potentially violent students? Researchers have an answer.

She said that rather than implementing “reactionary measures,” schools should focus on “social and emotional learning, focusing on addressing trauma and other mental health needs to make sure that overall, school is a warm and welcoming environment.”

She pointed to the Oxford shooting, and the alleged gunman, a 15-year-old who had come to the attention of school officials for worrying behavior in the days before the deadly attack.

Riedman said schools would benefit from hosting crisis response trainings, offering ways for students to “voice concerns if they identify that a classmate may be in crisis” and having steps in place to address and de-escalate such situations.

After Michigan school shooting, experts question what could have prevented it

Densley credited Oxford Community Schools for the additional measures it had announced, including making available trauma specialists and training for staffers.

“You want trauma-informed practices as you build these robust assessment protocols so we can prevent this type of violence from occurring,” he said.

In the message to the community, the Oxford superintendent noted resources and encouraged their use. An FAQ page on the district website includes a list of where community members can access mental health resources.

“This has been a challenging time for our community, and I want to encourage our Wildcats and their families to utilize the many resources and services for coping with trauma,” Throne said.

Read more:

In a devastating pandemic, teens are ‘more alone than ever.’ Many struggle to find help.

School threats and social media hoaxes are forcing closures, time-consuming investigations

More than 278,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine