Students hard at work. (Port Orchard Independent file photo)

Students hard at work. (Port Orchard Independent file photo)

Sixth-graders banned from using backpacks at Cedar Heights

Parents and students say the rule is making students late to class, among other problems

PORT ORCHARD — Since the beginning of the school year, some students have been in quiet protest at Cedar Heights Middle School.

A new rule that forbids sixth graders from using their backpacks at school has received a less than welcome reception from the first-year middle schoolers.

“The kids have been fighting it since the beginning of the year because it is only for the sixth graders,” said Chantall Ferrel, who has two kids in sixth grade at Cedar Heights.

“Their reasoning is that the sixth graders are disorganized, but the rule is unfair because not all six graders are disorganized, for one. Also, they do not give adequate time in between classes to get to their lockers to exchange books and to their other class, so they end up getting citations. If they get a certain amount of citations, they get lunchtime detention.”

Aside from chronic late arrivals to class due to having just four minutes to get from one classroom, to their locker and to another classroom — which could involve crossing the entire width of the school twice, wading through milling crowds of older students who aren’t in such a rush — there have been other consequences.

“My daughter about six weeks ago had to sit through an entire class with her bladder full because she didn’t have time to swap out her books and pee,” Ferrel said, “and when she got to class, her teacher said, ‘No, you should’ve done that before class.’ ”

Another parent on Facebook mentioned an injury her daughter received last year from a similar rule.

“Last year, my sixth grader had to regularly go from one side of the school to her locker, then go back to the other side,” the parent wrote.

“Despite doing things like giving extra passing time, she was bulldozed by scurrying seventh and eighth graders, and pushed down the stairs, dropping her lunch money. She was severely injured and tore her meniscus (and) had to wear a boot and brace and quit her sports. And instead of helping her, these kids picked up her money and kept going. There did end up being a couple seventh graders who lifted her to the office after the fact.”

There have also been reports of items stolen from lockers, and students not bringing coats to school despite the cold and rain because the lockers — which are to be shared by two or three students — don’t have enough room for multiple backpacks, coats and sets of textbooks.

Ferrel said her kids have been pushing back against this rule. On Jan. 29, they were four days into a silent protest, during which they wore their backpacks regardless of the rule. Ferrel said they were just shy of getting detention for it.

According to Ferrel, a student petition has circulated the school advocating for a repeal of the rule.

“I got involved last Wednesday (Jan. 24),” Ferrel said. “I’ve been letting the kids do their own thing on their own and see how far they can get. They finally asked me for help.

“They can’t do it on their own,” she said.

When Ferrel posted on the Port Orchard Facebook group page, the responses were so overwhelming, moderators had the comments section turned off.

One person responded, “I don’t have a child at CH, but when I was in JH [Junior High], there wasn’t enough time to make it to your lockers before you had to be at your next class. I think they should allow them to have their backpacks and not just single out the sixth graders.”

Another said, “So this rule is because sixth graders are too unorganized to keep track of their stuff. Adding an unnecessary dash back and forth between classes will of course magically cure that. As will going to seventh grade. Got it.”

Another commenter said, “Within the last few years there has been concerns about kids not being able to get to their lockers between classes anymore, and are carrying more weight on their backs than is healthy for their developing spines. It appears that many Jr/Sr high aged kids are developing lasting health problems and this is a change happening to many schools in the country.”

Ferrel put that post up asking other parents to join her in supporting the students. She said her intention was to organize a parent meeting with Andrew Cain, the principal of Cedar Heights.

“I spoke with the vice principal numerous times on the phone and I have been trying to set up some type of parent meeting with the principal,” Ferrel said.

“I just learned this morning that he refuses to do a mass parent meeting, that he will only meet with parents one-on-one, which I can only assume this is to basically control and scare parents into backing off.”

Terra Fitzhugh is another parent fighting back against this rule. Her daughter is in eighth grade and her youngest is a few grades shy of middle school, but she still wants to see this rule eliminated.

“Kids these days are loaded with school supplies,” Fitzhugh said. “Far more than they can simply carry in their arms.

“If they lengthened the time between classes, or installed more or bigger lockers, it would help take the stress off of the kids. After all, they’re children. They stress enough over other things, like grades, relationships, sports, the only things kids need to stress over.

“I’m passionate about this because I see a change that needs to happen,” Fitzhugh said. “I’m all about making positive changes and increasing the success of children’s education. It needs to be a positive experience in many aspects to ensure that they’ll go on, graduate and succeed in life.”

There are alternatives to abolishing the rule, however.

An increased amount of time between classes could, as Fitzhugh suggested, alleviate stress placed on the students. But the biggest change, which would in turn probably facilitate longer passing periods, is extending the rule to all grades, not just sixth graders.

John Sedgwick Junior High allegedly disallows all students to use backpacks. To accommodate that rule, though, the school’s passing periods were extended to five minutes instead of four. That extra minutes have been shown to make a big difference.

South Kitsap School District’s Amy Miller, director of communications, responded to requests for comment with the following statement, shared in its entirety:

“Administrators at South Kitsap Middle Schools, including Cedar Heights have put systems in place to help students be successful through the transition from Junior High to Middle Schools. Students in sixth grade are coming from an elementary environment where most organization is handled for them. The transition to sixth grade at the middle school level requires significantly more time-management and organizational skills on the student’s part. During the first year of Cedar Heights as a Middle School in 2016-2017, the administrative team learned that sixth grade 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.

“The administrators at the middle schools have blocked classes for sixth grade students to ease the amount of navigation around the school. Asking students to use their lockers for backpack storage frees up space and traffic in the hallways and reduces the tripping hazards in classrooms. Teachers check organization with routine, graded binder checks. As the school year progresses, students learn time management by taking varying routes to class and utilizing less crowded stairs and hallways.

“The systems have been successful and administrators are seeing improved academic performance. As with any change, time is needed for students to get adjusted. These organizational and self-management skills are an important part of AVID and essential as the students move on to later grades.”

Miller also said Cedar Heights Principal Andrew Cain met with some parents Thursday, and “attempts are being made at open and respectful communication.”

This story will be updated if further statements are provided by SKSD.

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

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