NJ experts say see-through backpacks may do more harm than good
An ethics expert and a gun violence researcher out of Rutgers-Camden suggest a new district-wide policy in South River is short sighted and likely an ineffective way to keep students safe.
Requiring that all backpacks be see-through may be less expensive than hiring security or installing metal detectors, they say, but could the move be doing more harm than good?
"Students have the right to a safe school environment, but challenges arise when that obligation conflicts with their reasonable right to privacy," said Margaret Betz, an assistant teaching professor of philosophy at Rutgers-Camden.
In a letter to parents dated July 27, South River Public Schools said it's refining its "current safety protocol and procedures" by implementing the mandatory use of clear backpacks at all schools. The high school has had the requirement in place since the 2019-2020 academic year.
The district is providing one clear backpack per student at no cost.
According to Betz, the move is an invasion of privacy that could easily impact students — an older student, for example, who's carrying sanitary products, or a younger student who may have a favorite stuffed animal in tow, just in case.
"In the first instance, you fail to protect students' bodily integrity and privacy, while in the second, you violate their emotional privacy, no differently than if you read their diaries," Betz said.
If the goal of public schools is to foster students' personal growth, then chipping away at their right to privacy may have a negative impact, she said.
Dan Semenza, an assistant professor at the Rutgers-based New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, said there is no evidence that clear backpacks do anything to improve student safety.
"I don't think this is an appropriate or effective way to handle school safety," Semenza said. "Limiting access to guns and assault rifles, particularly among young people, makes more sense and can have a bigger effect than clear backpacks."
Semenza suggested that districts may have more success by sending home a questionnaire to get a better idea of how many students have access to firearms at their homes. Intervention can then occur on the front end.
According to the district's letter to parents, the clear-backpack move is something that "many districts have adopted over the last several years."
The district has not yet responded to our request for comment on this article.