Weighty Issue

Schools look for ways to help students hurting from overstuffed backpacks

September 01, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun reporter

Courtney Watson worries about the load her youngest daughter, Elizabeth, is carrying at Marriotts Ridge High School.

"I swear, she carries at least a third of her body weight in her backpack," Watson complained. "I see her struggle to the bus with that load ... and her back hurts."

It's a familiar concern for parents and children alike. But Watson, a member of the Howard County Board of Education, did something about it. She commissioned a study of heavy backpacks that's due this month.

There's no question that school bags are overflowing with an expanding burden of heavy textbooks, binders, gym clothes, laptop computers, iPods and other odds and ends that weigh students down.

In a study published in the journal Spine in 2002, almost half of the students surveyed reported pain from carrying their book bags. But concern has been building since the late 1990s, when emerging research and anecdotal evidence suggested that book bag loads could be a health hazard.

As a result, schools around the country are searching for ways to lighten youngsters' loads. Some require that backpacks be kept in lockers during the day. Some keep extra sets of heavy textbooks for the classroom, so students can leave their copies at home. And some encourage the use of bags with wheels -- much like travelers' luggage.

Although some health experts call these concerns overblown and misdirected, most agree with parents that students should err on the side of caution -- and avoid injury.

To teach students how to load and carry their packs, the American Occupational Therapy Association sponsors National School Backpack Awareness Day, which falls on Sept. 20 this year. Several educational events are planned around Maryland.

According to the therapists' group and other health organizations, a pack loaded with as little as 25 percent of a student's body weight is too heavy. They suggest that youngsters carry no more than 10 percent to 20 percent of their body weight.

For a 100-pound child, that means a 20-pound book bag at most.

But parents and students say a lighter load is not always an option -- particularly for high school students who take seven classes a day and have to stuff their bags with heavy textbooks and bulging three-ring binders that get heavier as the year goes by.

"They schlep a huge amount of stuff around in those bags," said Nancy Morrow, an Ellicott City resident and mother of three students who was doing back-to-school shopping at the Mall in Columbia last week.

Students also complain that short breaks, far-apart classes and crowded hallways make it impossible to visit lockers between classes -- forcing them to lug all their books all day.

"I think schools need to manage it better," said Watson, who asked the Howard County Citizens Advisory Committee to study the issue and report to the school board late this month.

Some teachers are already trying to help. Brad Hebble, a social studies teacher at Westminster West Middle School, keeps a full set of his thick textbooks in the classroom so that students can leave theirs at home. "I managed to scrounge enough books to do that," he said.

Technology may also help cut down on kids' cargo, said Mary O'Flahrity, a backpack designer at Lands' End, a clothing retailer whose book bags are popular back-to-school items.

In addition to adding pockets and cord holes for iPods and other digital devices, the company is looking to the digital future of books themselves. In the front pocket of some new backpacks, traditional pen and pencil holders have been replaced by compact disc sleeves.

"We have heard that some schools are putting books on disc, so we are trying to keep up with what's happening," O'Flahrity said.

But Westminster's Hebble noted that books aren't the only objects stuffing book bags. "Some of them look like they're carrying all their belongings in there," he said. "Either they're real pack rats, or they don't know what they need."

Another issue: Fashion often trumps function. For her debut as a freshman at Columbia's Long Reach High School, 14-year-old Kirstin Scovitch insisted on toting her books in a single-strap courier bag from Abercrombie & Fitch.

"She wanted the courier bag because it's cool," said her mother, Tami Scovitch. "It probably won't be good for her, having one strap, though. The weight won't be equivalent."

That's right, say ergonomists. They recommend a lightweight pack with two wide, padded straps. When it's loaded, students should wear both straps (no matter how stylish the one-strap look may be). And if the bag has a waist belt, it should be fastened.

Other safety tips include packing heavy items closest to the child's back and tightening the shoulder straps so the bag rests in the curve of the lower back -- no lower than four inches below the waistline.

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