By Josh Bootsma
LANSING, Ill. (August 9, 2022) – As thousands of Lansing students return to District 158 schools on August 17, they will do so with a new layer of transparency strapped to their backs.
As part of an initiative hoped to improve safety and deter crime and disciplinary issues at schools, Lansing School District 158 will require students at its five schools — which range from preschool to middle school — to use district-supplied clear backpacks.
Reasons for the requirement
District 158 Superintendent Dr. Nathan Schilling said the origin of the idea came from the school board, which, after considering some of the recent incidents at D158 schools and doing research into policies other schools have implemented, decided clear backpacks was a proactive way to address potential school issues.
Last November, a fifth grade student at Coolidge Elementary School brought an unloaded 9mm Beretta pistol to school in a backpack.
“After that, there were some discussions that took place about ‘Are we at the place where our schools need metal detectors?'” said Schilling. “Through our investigation, looking at some of the research and some of the testimonials of districts that have done it, it really seems to have a negative impact on school culture.”
The District then looked elsewhere for strategies to provide more safety to students without sacrificing school culture. That search resulted in clear backpacks.
“After the very unfortunate school shooting that took place in Texas, this is becoming more and more common now, school districts are starting to adopt this. But it was really an outgrowth of ‘If we don’t have metal detectors, what is another security approach that would give us some level of transparency with what is being brought into our schools?'” Schilling said.
Transparent bags, new policies
The new backpacks are made of clear plastic with polyester straps, and include a District 158 logo on the front. Schilling said some staffers tested out the bags by wearing them around for a day and found them to be “sturdy.”
The backpacks are free for all district students and will be distributed either on August 16 or 17, depending on the school. The cost to replace a lost or damaged bag is $18.
A letter sent to D158 parents said, “Those who bring conventional backpacks into our buildings during the regular school day will have them confiscated, searched, and returned to families. Repeat offenses may result in progressive disciplinary consequences, including intervention by the [School Resource Officer].”
Schilling said in addition to school staff being vigilant in noticing the contents of school backpacks, students will be a big help as well.
“Some of this is educating the kids and saying, ‘If you see something or identify something concerning in a friend’s backpack, report that.’ So there’s a general layer of transparency that is improved by having these,” he said.
Self-expression and privacy concerns
“There is going to be a little bit of a stigma with this and we do acknowledge that,” Schilling said. “There’s an element of uniqueness and self-expression that kids have through the backpacks that they choose and wear and we acknowledge there’s a little bit of that that is lost through an initiative like this.”
Schilling said the district leadership team discussed at length the stigmas and self-expression concerns, and determined that security was more important. He said, “We weighed those things against safety, and it was really felt that the safety component of this does outweigh some of those other things.”
As part of the new policy, students can place lunchboxes, purses, and small bags inside their clear backpacks to maintain a level of privacy. Those items are subject to search by school staff, however.
Schilling apologized to any parents that had already purchased new backpacks for their child ahead of the policy announcement.
Other safety measures
Another new aspect of the 2022-23 school year in District 158 will be having a dedicated school resource officer. Detective Jennifer Lewis will be based at Memorial Jr. High School but will have a presence at each of the five D158 schools, and will respond to situations throughout the district.
Additionally, D158’s letter to parents said new high-quality video surveillance cameras will be placed at schools, as well as a BluePoint Alert System, which operates similarly to a pull-lever fire alarm and immediately alerts law enforcement of serious situations such as an active shooter.
“As a community, we need to continue to find ways to improve the safety and security of our schools. We need to be trying new things,” Schilling said. “We understand that there is some hesitation with the backpacks or even the idea that some people are nervous about having a police officer in the schools now, but I think we need to do something. We need to keep moving in the direction of trying these initiatives because these situations with the shootings are not going away. … I would ask for understanding, patience, and flexibility from our families and stakeholders as we implement these things.”
District 158 headquarters are located at 18300 Greenbay Avenue in Lansing. The District comprises Memorial Jr. High School, Coolidge Elementary, Reavis Elementary, Oak Glen Elementary, and Lester Crawl Primary Center. The D158 main phone number is 708-474-6700.