A clear mess: How Broward schools failed backpack plan cost parents and taxpayers

A botched move by Broward Schools to require clear backpacks for the fall — only to reverse the decision five weeks later — has left parents and community agencies scrambling to clean up the mess.

Demand for see-through backpacks soared after the district announced on May 5 it was banning traditional backpacks as part of an effort to reduce weapons on campuses. But by the time the district decided to quash the requirement on June 13, it wasn’t always easy to return them.

The district’s moves nearly upended a plan by the taxpayer-funded Children’s Service Council of Broward County to provide thousands of backpacks to needy kids and cost the council $21,000 to fix.

Even as the plan was unraveling, school district officials continued to move forward, insisting to community agencies the plans were firm. They also tried to persuade the public the number of weapons found on campuses was increasing, despite data showing the opposite.

“It certainly doesn’t help to build credibility and goodwill in the community,” said Board member Sarah Leonardi, who opposed the clear-backpack mandate.

The initiative was fraught from the start. The School Board made the decision during two closed-door security sessions on March 28 and April 11. Many open meetings and legal experts say the meetings likely violated the state’s Sunshine Law, which requires most topics to be discussed in public.

Although School Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff and Chief Communications Officer John Sullivan said in a May 5 news conference that the School Board would need to “memorialize” the backpack rule at a future public meeting, the district’s email to parents that day indicated it was final.

The backlash was immediate and intense. Parents flooded social media and School Board inboxes with angry emails. They complained the backpacks violated student privacy, increased the likelihood of theft and didn’t make students safer. Multiple district advisory groups passed resolutions opposing the change.

Nelson Rose holds clear backpacks he bought for his son after Broward County Public Schools said students would be required to wear them at his home in Plantation, Saturday, June 24, 2023. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Nelson Rose holds clear backpacks he bought for his son after Broward County Public Schools said students would be required to wear them at his home in Plantation, Saturday, June 24, 2023. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Responding to concerns, Alhadeff asked her fellow School Board members May 9 to hold a workshop or town hall to get feedback before moving forward. Some board members said no, but most agreed to a town hall.

But even though the decision was far from final, district administrators refused for weeks to give any direction to parents or community agencies about whether to hold off buying them. That’s despite district administrator Valerie Wanza saying in a District Advisory Council meeting May 10 that the backpacks might be provided free to all students, which would alleviate the need for families to buy them.

The district’s website continued to indicate for weeks the decision was final.

“Beginning in the 2023/24 school year, ONLY CLEAR BACKPACKS AND BAGS WILL BE PERMITTED FOR STUDENTS IN ALL GRADES,” the district’s website read.

After the South Florida Sun Sentinel asked Sullivan why the website didn’t reflect the proposal was still subject to change, the district added “pending board approval” in small letters on May 23.

Plantation parent Nelson Rose said he went online to buy two clear backpacks for $40 each for his middle school son after the district announced the rule. By the time the district backed off the requirement, he had passed the 30-day return window

“I wanted to be ahead of the game,” Rose said. “It’s a lesson learned.”

Despite the expense, Rose said he’s glad the School Board reversed its decision. He found the quality of the clear bags to be poor.

“They were garbage. They would have only lasted a month, so it’s kind of a relief,” he said. “I’m out $80. It’s not the end of the world.”

The Children’s Service Council made a much larger investment. Before the clear backpack rule was announced, the council had budgeted $124,000 for 8,000 supply-filled canvas backpacks for an annual back-to-school event for homeless and low-income children.

The switch to clear backpacks added $65,592 to the budget. The clear bags cost more, Council President Cindy Arenberg Seltzer said, and she decided to order 4,000 unfilled bags to give to students who came to school with a backpack that wasn’t allowed.

Seltzer said she had some concerns the district would reverse the rule, but Board member Allen Zeman and Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley insisted at a May 18 Children’s Service Council board meeting that the decision was firm.

Clear backpacks “are something we believe in as a board,” Zeman told the council.

“We’re full speed ahead,” Smiley added. “The debate is going to happen no matter what. We would ask the public to understand where we sit and understand the past. We could never sit and allow what happened Feb. 14, 2018, to ever happen again.”

She was referring to the Parkland shooting that killed 17 people, including the daughter of Alhadeff and the husband of board member Debbi Hixon.

“You can’t wait,” Smiley told the council. “You constantly have to build those protections while you are trying to increase the safety to get to the actual benchmarks. We benchmark safety in Broward County Schools against the airports and against Disney. If we can meet those standards, we can all rest assured learning and safety are alive and well in Broward County.”

Neither airports nor Disney theme parks require bags to be clear.

Smiley told the Children’s Service Council board members that the district was trying to get enough donations of clear backpacks for all 220,000 students in district-run schools. But district spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion declined to name the organizations the district had spoken to about backpack donations.

“The District has the support of numerous civic and community organizations that support back-to-school efforts at large, which may include backpack giveaways,” she said. “Those organizations may have made adjustments based on the previously proposed initiative. The District does not have a list of names of organizations.”

Seltzer told the Sun Sentinel this week the Children’s Service Council had gotten good news. The vendor had agreed to swap out the 8,000 filled backpacks for canvas ones. The vendor also agreed to cancel the order for the 4,000 extra empty ones. The total cost dropped from $189,857 to $145,465, which was still $21,000 higher than the council planned to pay before the clear backpack rule was announced.

Officials from several agencies said they were reluctant to donate clear bags to kids if they weren’t required for all, out of concern it would make disadvantaged kids stand out.

“Our children will not be marked in any way. They will get the regular backpacks,” Seltzer said at a June 15 council meeting,

Another district partner, the Broward Education Foundation, took a different approach from the start. It had already received a donation of 1,000 canvas backpacks from Office Depot before the rule was announced. The foundation operates a store where teachers can pick up supplies for students free of charge.

Shea Ciriago, president and CEO of the foundation, gambled the board might change its mind so she waited it out. She also contacted School Board members asking them to drop the mandate.

“Thank God the vote went the way it did,” Ciriago said.

As the district officials met with community groups, they were also trying to get buy-in from the public, saying data on weapons supported the change.

But the district’s data showed 133 major weapons this past school year, a nearly 40% drop from the previous year. Another weapons figure cited by the district, 434, included items considered not as major, such as toy guns, pepper spray and pocket knives. That figure was down 30% from the previous year.

A district that had been criticized by a statewide grand jury for under-reporting safety incidents now appeared ready to publicize every weapon found on a school campus, including the toy guns.

On May 11, Valerie Wanza texted School Board members photos of weapons and details of multiple incidents.

Sea Castle Elementary “worked with police and found 5th grade male in possession of an airsoft gun in his backpack (not a clear one!),” she texted. “Gulfstream K-8 Academy- a plastic (looks very real) gun was found in a 3rd grade male’s backpack (not clear either).”

Later that day, board member Daniel Foganholi, the board’s strongest advocate for clear backpacks, posted the photos of the two toy guns as well as two knives he said were found in backpacks..

“We must take all necessary measures to create a safe learning environment for our future leaders,” Fonganholi tweeted.

Regardless of how serious the district’s weapons problem is, there was little research to suggest that clear backpacks were an effective solution. National safety experts, including one the district hired in the wake of Parkland, referred to them in media reports as ineffective and “security theater.” One 2016 study suggested they may actually make schools less safe because it signals to students they can’t be trusted.

The clear backpack plan was starting to look unlikely to stick after it was revealed May 29 that Plantation parent Nathalie Lynch-Walsh used an obscure state law to delay the vote. The law allows parents to request a lengthy rulemaking process that would delay any final vote until July 27.

On June 12, the plan received its most devastating blow when more than 200 people weighed in on the town hall, with all but a few voicing outrage at the board, both for the clear backpack proposal itself and for the board’s decision to make it without public input. The School Board agreed June 13 to officially quash the mandate. Among the dissenters was School Board member Torey Alston.

“I always support community engagement, but in my role as a school board member, my obligation of adequate safety in our schools comes first,” Alston told the Sun Sentinel. “Clear backpacks, metal detectors and a uniform dress code all add a layer of protection to avoid a woulda, coulda, shoulda moment.”

Zeman, who at one time had been an ardent supporter of backpacks, acknowledged the School Board could have handled it differently.

“I think the board is appropriately interested in doing anything to improve safety and security, and when an opportunity came up to do that, we moved faster than we do on other things,” he said. “We were trying to strike a balance between getting information out so we could be ready for the next school year and getting public comment. In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way in the future.”

Zeman said he bought three backpacks online for his kids and now the deadline has passed to return them. There’s no ban on clear backpacks, so he could still send his kids to school with the bags.

“My children prefer the canvas ones,” he said. “I’ll put tools or something in them.”

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