Middle school and high school students in North East Independent School District will have to carry clear backpacks beginning next school year. Credit: Flickr / James Emery

North East Independent School District will require all middle and high school students to carry clear plastic backpacks beginning next school year. Athletic bags, purses, and lunch bags will be permitted, and elementary students will still be allowed to use traditional backpacks.

The district, San Antonio’s second largest with 65,000 students, also announced Monday night additional security measures intended to safeguard students in the wake of an epidemic of school shootings.

Those include locking all exterior doors at every campus and requiring visitors to be “buzzed in” to school facilities via an intercom. Campus staff will be equipped with handheld metal detectors for discretionary use and will be permitted to conduct random searches. Administrators will receive active-shooter training and each counselor will receive further training on mental health care. NEISD plans to hire two additional police officers for increased patrols at elementary schools.

“Unfortunately, we are living in a time when the problem of school violence doesn’t seem to be going away,” the district wrote in a letter to parents Monday. “We have to take action and in some cases make difficult decisions that are for the better good of our community.”

In response to the May 18 shooting that left 10 dead at Santa Fe High School near Houston, Gov. Greg Abbott last week released the School and Firearm Safety Action Plan following three days of roundtable discussions with safety experts, educators, students and legislators. The 44-page plan outlines a number of strategies  that address mental health and “hardening” campus facilities, but does not include a recommendation to require clear backpacks.

As more school districts reconsider their safety procedures in response to Abbott’s plans and the shootings, Felicia Castro-Villarreal, an educational psychology expert at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said it is important that schools be sensitive to a student’s need to feel comfortable at school.

“It is a difficult balance to strike, but we definitely do encourage and promote reasonable school safety practices,” Castro-Villarreal said, noting that she considers metal detectors, random searches, and increased armed officers to be more extreme measures.

NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said that while the district regrets having to take such measures, it wants to do everything in its power to protect students.

“We wish that we didn’t have to have these types of conversations, we wish that we didn’t have to make these types of decisions, but unfortunately that is where we are,” Chancellor said. “At this point, we are willing to do what we can if we think it could possibly add an additional layer of safety.”

Schools should seek input from parents, students, and community members before implementing new policies, Castro-Villarreal said. Students from different backgrounds will have varying levels of comfort with police officers, she said, so increased police presence might not be the universal answer.

“If students say, ‘random searches really make me feel like this is a prison,’ or ‘Armed school guards in every single corridor would make me feel like a prisoner,’ we need to respect the [feedback,]” Castro-Villarreal said.

After implementing a plan, the UTSA education expert said districts should evaluate the efficacy of individual policies and analyze the results by using measurable data, including the number of violent incidents or referrals for student discipline alongside student morale.

Research indicates that the climate of a school plays a role in student performance, so it is important to create a learning environment that students feel comfortable in, she said.

NEISD is still finalizing its policy on searching people in schools, Chancellor said. The district is consulting with legal counsel to determine details of how searches will be conducted.

Immediately after NEISD announced the security measures, parents, residents, and students took to social media to voice their views. Many applauded the policies, saying they were a positive step in improving school safety, while others questioned whether the clear backpacks would make a difference if bags for carrying athletic, dance, or band gear would still be allowed.

Chancellor said the district is reviewing the issues presented by allowing other bags to be brought on campus, and may make additional changes to policy to address these challenges in time for the next school year. These types of bags present an additional logistical challenge, whereas requiring clear backpacks was a policy decision NEISD could make easily.

Meghan Palmer, a rising senior at Roosevelt High School, wrote on Facebook that she was “ashamed of this decision.” She said that it would be better to implement an outreach program for bullied or troubled students, and she compared the “buzz in” entry system to a prison.

“What if a metal detector goes off near a female and she has to explain she has underwire bras, or a female student is on her period, how can she be discreet now?” Palmer wrote.

Palmer told the Rivard Report that the new policies make her feel like she is in a “locked ward for eight hours a day.”

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School also were required to carry clear backpacks. Students there criticized the policy, with some saying it made them feel like they had no privacy and others comparing their school to a jail.

After the Parkland tragedy, San Antonio school officials stressed the importance of taking precautions, but also emphasized that balancing student feelings to the protective policies and safety is necessary.

The Monday night policy update is not the first safety policy change NEISD has announced this year. In May, the district also instituted a clear bag policy for all sporting events at all NEISD athletic venues.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.