When Marjory Stoneman Douglas students returned to classes after spring break on Monday, they were greeted by friends, therapy dogs, barricades — and mandatory clear backpacks.
Students at all Broward County Public Schools in Parkland, Florida, had to start wearing the backpacks as part of stricter security following the mass shooting that killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School last month. Administrators said they implemented the new safety measures on behalf of the students’ safety — but multiple students at the high school told VICE News they don’t feel any safer. In fact, many feel like they’re being policed, instead of protected. The school also bulked up the number of armed officers at the school as part of the new measures.
“I hate the backpacks, and I think they solve nothing,” said Alyssa Goldfarb, a 16-year-old sophomore at Stoneman Douglas. “It’s more of a way of the county saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing something.’”
Teachers across the school distributed the backpacks during second period. Before that, however, some tried to give students an outlet for the new security. For example, 17-year-old senior Robert Bonczek said his teacher let students email the administration during first period.
“It bothers me that the decision is being made by people on the school board rather than our faculty,” Bonczek said. “That’s annoying.”
Another issue, especially for female students who spoke to VICE News, is the potential violation of their privacy. It’s unclear if students are allowed to have bags within their backpacks, and if not, some teens are forced to put their tampons and pads on display. Any students taking medication they might not want everyone to see would also have to drop the bottle or packet into their clear bag.
The new policy has its loopholes, though — Robert W. Runcie, the district’s superintendent, even told parents in an email that the policy is a “work in progress.” The district wasn’t available to comment on the new policy on Monday.
Carly Novell, a 17-year-old senior, said she didn’t go to student services to have her plastic lunch bag cleared, even after a security guard instructed her to get her back checked.
“I just ran to class, and no one cared,” she said. “That just already shows that this already doesn’t do anything.”
Students with instruments and sporting equipment also had their bags and cases searched but still carry them around the campus, according to Novell.
Transparent backpacks aren’t a new idea. A Chicago high school made waves after adopting them as far back as 2013. (The students weren’t thrilled then, either.) And a district in Dallas required students to start carrying them after the Parkland shooting. Some safety experts, however, say students can easily get around the policy.
“They take a book and hollow it out and put a gun in the book. This is not an anomaly. It’s a repeatedly used method,” Michael Dorn, executive director of nonprofit campus safety organization Safe Havens International, told Racked. “They buy all of these different containers and put the gun in there, or they put it in a tennis shoe or wrap the gun in their gym shorts. They get a rifle and put it in a musical instrument case."
Even the bags’ smell was an issue.
“They’re ugly, and they smell weird,” Novell said. She agreed with one of her classmates who likened the scent to a new beach ball.
“Oh, my god, those things are weird,” said Jack Haimowitz, an 18-year-old senior and captain of the lacrosse team. “I almost didn’t want to put my lunch in there. Those things smell funky.”
Haimowitz also said everyone immediately started making jokes after receiving the backpacks. Some students even put signs in the panel for everyone to read. He wrote “clear backpacks are dumb.” He and his friends plan to put as many ridiculous items as they can find in their bags on Tuesday — a sriracha bottle, some loose Legos, and an apple, to name a few.
“I saw some people write on them or put tags on it,” Bonczek said. “I feel like that’s not the right way to go about it. It isn’t Rubio's fault that we have clear backpacks,” he added, referring to some students who put price tags showing how much they feel their lives are worth to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who's taken large campaign donations from the NRA.
The students, who also wore the price tags to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., last weekend, found the number by dividing how much money Rubio took from the NRA in 2017 by the number of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. One student even tweeted that she planned to put an ugly picture of Rubio in her backpack.
“At the end of the day, if it doesn’t make us feel safer, what’s the point?” Bonczek said. “It’s just a distraction.”
In addition to the backpacks, at least 8 more armed officers — per Gov. Rick Scott’s orders — guarded the school’s entrances and exits all day. The school previously had at least one armed school resource officer before the shooting. He failed to act when the gunman stormed the school on Feb. 14, and he ultimately resigned after being suspended.
But some students still aren’t thrilled to have more guns around.
“It’s really uncomfortable seeing the officers with guns in their holsters,” Novell said. The armed guards don’t make her feel any safer, and she can’t help but imagine them pulling their guns out and shooting.
Students of color, like Kai Koerber, a black 17-year-old at Stoneman Douglas, are worried that an increased police presence on campus will lead to them being treated like “potential criminals.”
“It’s bad enough we have to return with clear backpacks,” Koerber said at the press conference last week. “Should we also return with our hands up?”
And some students have already noticed the increased police presence.
Haimowitz, for example, went outside during fourth period to hang out with friends. He wants as much time as possible with them before he leaves for college at the University of Texas-Austin.
“The problem that I have with the police officers is that every single security guard knows us. I’m a fourth-quarter senior — the administrators and I know each other on a first-name basis,” Haimowitz said, adding that the police officers just aren’t as familiar with the students. “And having all these cops just immediately swarm us was agitating. I’m trying to enjoy my friends, and everything just seems inorganic.”
But unlike with the backpacks, reactions to the armed officers are a mixed bag. Other students told VICE News they do feel safer.
“I think some of the stuff they did originally was good, like the increased police presence,” Bonczek said.
“The only thing that makes me feel safe is knowing there’s a bunch more security knowing no one can get in,” Goldfarb said.
Cover image: Students wear clear backpacks outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Monday, April 2, 2018. The bags are one of a number of security measures the school district has enacted as a result of the Feb. 14 shooting at the school that killed 17. (John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)