The Gainesville Sun | By Gershon Harrell | June 28, 2022
Alachua County school district officials in an about-face move decided to not move forward with a clear bookbag mandate announced just 24 hours earlier.
District officials announced Monday afternoon that all middle and high school students would be forced to use clear bookbags for the upcoming school year in effort to help curb a rise in youth violence.
School board members, the superintendent, Gainesville police chief and Alachua County sheriff all advocated for the plan which was met with fierce criticism, including an online petition that gathered nearly 2,000 signatures in under a day.
Tuesday, the district walked back those plans.
“After hearing from families about the potential impact of a clear backpack requirement for middle and high school students, the district will not be moving forward with the requirement for the 2022-23 school year,” a district voicemail left for parents said.
The decision to have clear backpacks comes after a rise in youth violence locally and nationally this past year, school officials said Monday, which includes the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas where 19 students and two teachers died.
After the shooting, Alachua County district officials met with local law enforcement leaders to discuss ideas to help keep children safe. Having clear bookbags, which are difficult to find in major retail stores, was among the top recommendations, despite the idea not being fully formed and details hush until next week.
The decision was ultimately made by district staff, not school board members.
Those who demanded the district walk back its announcement argued the change accomplishes nothing and that clear bags put an undue burden on already struggling parents, some adding that plastic is harmful to the environment and not as durable for heavy books.
One person who signed the Change.Org petition told officials to regulate guns not bags.
“Clear bags will only make life harder for students,” another signer wrote. “If someone wants to bring a weapon on to school campus, they’ll find a way.”
In a news release sent out Tuesday, interim Superintendent Shane Andrew said families and board members expressed their concern about the use of clear backpacks.
“I’ve spoken with board members individually, with Chief Scott at GPD (Gainesville Police Department) and with Sheriff Watson at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, and they agree we should spend more time discussing this and other safety proposals,” Andrew said.
In May, an eighth-grade student at Fort Clarke Middle brought a gun to campus, which school board member Mildred Russell said was a factor in the brief mandate.
Board members Mildred Russell and Robert Hyatt were in favor of having a clear backpack.
Andrew said the district will gather input from families, students, employees and other community partners about strategies that could promote safety on a school campus.
“These are very complicated issues, and there are no easy solutions,” said Andrew. “We need to work collaboratively to make sure our students and all citizens are safe in our schools and in the community.”