Throwing the book at kids with bookbags?


October 11, 1998|By Mike Burns

"I SAW YOU with some bag yesterday?"

"That was no bag, that was my briefcase."

It's a tortured reworking of an old and tired joke, I know. But it seems to fit in the black leather container that Skyler Brungardt carried to classes at North Carroll High School last month.

He ran afoul of the school administration, which had issued a clear ban on "book bags" in classrooms.

The intent was to avoid safety problems of tripping over the bulky bags strewn on crowded classroom floors and accidents in congested hallways. And to curb the transport of contraband (drugs, weapons, food) into classes.

Young Brungardt -- with an eye toward law school? -- and his mother maintained that a briefcase is not a book bag and that he did not violate school rules.

A briefcase is not as bulky as the mammoth book bags that most kids use to carry their stuff to school. It sits in an upright position. It is used to hold books and papers, but no one calls it a bag.

Two days' suspension

The junior got two days' suspension for the act. Actually, one of those days was spent while the youth's mother argued with the principal that the previous day's suspension was unwarranted.

School authorities were unmoved by legalisms and hair-splitting. Young Brungardt is appealing the decision to the superintendent's office, following school procedure. He also circulated a petition among students for support.

The school principal, Gary Dunkleberger, explained that the suspension was based on "insubordination," that is, young Brungardt's refusal to obey an order to put the briefcase in his locker.

So even if it had been a wallet or a pencil case, the miscreant was automatically wrong to defy school authorities. Sort of like the Army.

Test of wills

It's a common case in high schools, and has been for many years. Smart-aleck student finds a loophole in the code and flagrantly challenges the administration. Stiff-necked principals who consider themselves demigods demand absolute obedience.

Lots of educational time and energy is wasted in a futile test of wills to show who's boss, with an ultimate loss to the pupil in days of schooling and a blemished record.

The issue of behemoth book bags is a complex one.

Students seem to feel the need to carry a backpack big enough for an assault on Mount Everest.

Part of it is the personal junk that they carry, which experiences an annual logarithmic increase inversely proportional to its utility.

Part of it is a teaching method that requires multiple books and binders for each subject. Part of it is the enormous size of school "text" books these days. Many teachers eschew traditional textbooks in favor of 6-pound anthologies and various tomes of "resource" materials.

That still doesn't mean that pupils have to drag those huge packs into the classroom and through the halls. They can leave the burdens in their lockers. But that can mean returning to the locker every period or so to retrieve needed materials, clogging congested passageways and being late for class.

If kids have to carry books and papers for several classes before lunch break, there's also the problem of how to keep it together, and how to ergonomically handle the weight.

Backpacks distribute the weight more efficiently, and better contain the paraphernalia. But they are obstacles to traffic flow, and to classroom safety.

So the dilemma continues. There should be a common sense solution that would allow some sort of modest book bags for inter-classroom transport, but not the bulky back packs.

Years ago, believe it or not, kids carried all their books and papers in a bulging zippered binder. Well, maybe just one book )) balancing on top.

Teachers concerned that students are dealing drugs, playing Nintendo or eating during class should take prompt remedial action, no matter what receptacle the offender employed.

There is no questioning that responsibility, and teachers must be backed up by the administration.

Bookbags versus drugs

Still, the citizens of Carroll have to wonder why a kid who spent his own $100 on a leather briefcase (rather than leather sneakers) is suspended from school for two days, and youths accused as adults in the drug homicide of a fellow student are welcomed back in class without a peep.

Not that North Carroll is alone in the book bag prohibition. A few other schools have banned the bag, for similar reasons.

Lots of taxpayers also support the bag ban. The public also expects that students will respect the authority of school staff, and not bend the rules. There is no equality of child and adult in the public school system.

But respect for authority is earned by a wise educator.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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