Backpack pushback: School administrators say there are valid reasons for rule

South Kitsap School District officials added rule for safety reasons — and to teach new skills.

PORT ORCHARD – At Cedar Heights Elementary, a school rule forbidding sixth graders from using backpacks, while still allowing seventh and eighth graders to use them, has caused some students and parents to push back against the school’s administration.

School administrators, in turn, are firm about the purpose and effectiveness of the backpack rule.

Amy Miller, the communications coordinator for the South Kitsap School District, said the administrators have put the rule in place to help sixth graders be successful in a middle-school environment.

“Students in sixth grade are coming from an elementary environment where most of the organization is handled for them,” Miller said.

“The transition to sixth grade at the middle-school level requires significantly more time-management and organizational skills on the student’s part.”

Miller said that in the 2016-17 school year — the first year Cedar Heights operated as a middle school and included sixth grade — the younger students “needed extra assistance.”

“The sixth-grade students were not keeping their binders organized and many refused to use lockers at all, and academic performance suffered as a result,” Miller said.

With the new rule in place, Miller said academic performance has improved, and “asking students to use their lockers for backpack storage frees up space and traffic in the hallways and reduces the tripping hazards in classrooms.”

The Feb. 2 edition of the Port Orchard Independent shared the concerns of some parents and students about the backpack rule. They said the rule places an unfair burden on sixth-grade students, forcing them to rush to and from their lockers between each class during four-minute passing periods, causing some students to be tardy. If a student is consistently late, he or she will be given detention.

Teresa Messing, who teaches eighth-grade history and sixth-grade physical education at Cedar, said, “The sixth-grade classes are all located on one floor of the school, therefore there is no need for them to go to their locker or require a backpack.”

There also have been complaints about students not having time to use the restroom, of not bringing coats to school due to lack of space in the locker and of being injured trying to get to and from their lockers quickly enough through the crowds of other students.

Messing rebutted the restroom complaint. “Students can ask to use the restroom if it is after the bell. They are not penalized if they are late to class if they tell the teacher they were waiting to use the restroom,” she added.

Furthermore, she said the rule is a safety issue.

“Backpacks are notorious for hiding things that should not be at school, as well as being a dumping ground for class assignments and other things that need to not be lost,” Messing said.

“When students have a backpack, it tends to be loaded down with things that should stay home, such as unnecessary electronics and other valuables that unfortunately can get stolen.”

She said as a teacher, she’s suffered sprained ankles from tripping over backpacks in the classroom.

“Backpacks are a safety issue for teachers. Many of us have crowded classrooms and there is not enough room to have big backpacks behind the chairs or on the floor,” Messing said.

She added that she believes new lockers are being installed over spring break for the sixth and seventh graders right outside their block of classrooms, and that sixth graders are to be let out early at the end of the day to get their backpacks from their lockers.

“Sixth graders come from an elementary school environment where movement is controlled,” Messing said. “When they come up to middle school, there is a lot more room. We found it intimidating for some of our sixth graders.

“Eighth graders have 90 percent of their classes outside in portables that are not real close to the school, and being outside they do not have easy access to their lockers. With our weather, many have coats, umbrellas and other bulky items that make a backpack a need.”

Ultimately, Messing said school safety is the top priority at Cedar.

“I am a proud Cedar teacher and I will defend what we do, admit what needs to be changed and work to change whatever it takes to protect and educate our kids.”

For previous coverage, read “Sixth-graders banned from using backpacks at Cedar Heights.”

Michelle Beahm is the online editor for the Kitsap News Group. She can be reached at mbeahm@soundpublishing.com.

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