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Pa. school outlaws knapsacks

August 17, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - James Buchanan High School students will lose a long-standing tradition when they return to class Aug. 30 and are told they can no longer bring their knapsacks to class.

The policy adopted this month by the Tuscarora School Board is part of a larger, overall plan the school board is implementing in an effort to create a safer environment for the six-school district, said William Pupo, assistant principal at the high school.

He said nearly all 800 high school students sling knapsacks, usually loaded with books, papers, laptop computers, calculators, school supplies and personal items, over their shoulders.

The fear among administrators and teachers is that the knapsacks can also carry drugs, alcohol, or even weapons.

"So much can be hidden in a knapsack," Pupo said. "They're a big issue for teachers. The things in them are unseen. It can be scary."

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He said knapsacks are easy to get into by students bent on stealing. They are usually wide open and unprotected. "It's not unusual for a good scientific calculator or lunch money to disappear from them," he said.

They also pose a tripping threat in narrow classroom aisles because students usually flop them down on the floor beside their chairs, he said.

Pupo said Tuscarora is following a growing trend in school districts across the country in banning knapsacks in classrooms.

"They haven't had them in the middle school here for years," he said.

Students can bring them to school, but they have to put them into their lockers. The same is true for gym bags or any oversize bags that can hide illegal items, Pupo said.

He said he has received a handful of phone calls from students protesting the new policy, but none from parents.

"Most parents realize it's a safety issue," he said. "We're hoping the students see it that way, too."

The Mercersburg Police Department has a special protection contract with the school district. Police Chief Larry Thomas said he agrees with the new policy.

"It makes sense," he said. "The students and the teachers will feel more comfortable in a safer environment."

Pupo said the knapsack rule is part of an overall safe-school plan that includes prevention, crisis management and emergency plans in cases of bomb threats, unwelcome intruders, hazardous spills, fire and severe weather conditions.

Teachers will be given three-hour training sessions for the new plan before the school year begins, Pupo said.

Violence at James Buchanan High School has dropped by a thrid in the last three years, Pupo said, adding there were only seven recorded incidents of fighting among students last year.

The district has a tough anti-fighting policy in which violators are charged by police with disorderly conduct. They appear before a district justice and conviction can mean fines and hours of community service, Thomas said.

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