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Backpack policies in spotlight

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HEIDI MURRIN | Tribune-Review
Two Connoquenessing Valley Elementary School students carry their back packs into school Friday, May 2, 2014.

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By Megan Harris
Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

Backpack policies ebb and flow with violent attacks such as the stabbings at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville or the Columbine and Newtown shootings that put school safety procedures into harsh focus.

At districts across Western Pennsylvania, most school boards evaluate procedures, at least in passing, once each school year.

Colleen Murphy's daughter, Julia, attends Moon Area Middle School, where the eighth-grader says she has to make frequent stops at her locker because the school prohibits book bags in the classroom.

“(She is) sometimes late for class, so it's an inconvenience to students,” Murphy said. “As a parent, I don't mind it. It seems pretty standard these days and obviously is safer for the kids — though, clearly, there is no way to fully protect kids.”

School administrators often enact restrictive backpack policies to stem congestion and reduce student theft.

A ban on backpacks last week stemmed from an incident at Ramsey Elementary School, part of Gateway School District in Monroeville. The school said its kindergarten through fourth-grade students no longer can bring backpacks to school because a 6-year-old arrived with a loaded .45-caliber handgun in his book bag.

The boy gave the gun to a teacher. Police arrested his mother, who said she suspected visitors to her home put it there.

Students such as Murphy argue that short breaks between classes make it tough to switch their loads quickly enough to get to the next class on time.

At Fox Chapel Area High School, students may bring bags and backpacks to school — mostly for books and sports equipment — but must store them in lockers.

Students are not permitted to carry backpacks during the school day unless they have a backpack pass from the nurse, said district spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski.

In Norwin, spokesman Jonathan D. Szish said: “We've made no decisions on the topic, but those discussions are happening.”

District officials usually discuss backpack and other security rules at their June meeting, he said.

At Franklin Regional, parents were told school officials planned to tighten policy after police accused sophomore Alex Hribal of stabbing 21 students and adults with two carving knives he brought from home. District officials declined to comment.

Elementary students at Brentwood Borough School District may carry book bags, but middle- and high-schoolers may not.

North Allegheny, Mt. Lebanon, Pittsburgh, North Hills, Seneca Valley and Moon Area school districts do not have board-approved backpack policies, but all reserve the right to check a student's property if he or she is suspected of general mischief.

“Those decisions are part of any security discussion,” Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said. “But you look at a lot of things. Metal detectors, security cameras and officers — it all comes up.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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