Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Since the 1990s, transparent plastic book bags have been promoted as a security solution after school shootings and terror attacks. But their true effects are hazy.
For high schoolers in Parkland, Florida, going back to class after the shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 meant being on display. The name of their town had become shorthand for a tragedy; their trauma had become fodder for a nation trying to make sense of—and move past, and regulate around—yet another school shooting, which left 17 classmates dead.
Also on display were the contents of their book bags: Over spring break, the school established a rule that students wear clear plastic backpacks instead of conventional ones.
See-through book bags are a school-violence-deterrence tactic that dates back decades. But the MSD teens rebelled against the gear. They told journalists that they hated the beach-ball smell, the uniformity, and the fact that their private belongings—from tampons to medication—were now public. Students turned their bags into stages for protest: They exhibited Spongebob memes (“ravioli ravioli give us the gun controli”), snarky notes (“so when are our clear school uniforms coming in??”), and makeshift prisoner ID badges in them.
AJ Cardenas, then a 19-year-old freshman at Florida State University, created an Instagram account dedicated to sharing photos of backpacks mocking the trend. By soliciting submissions from MSD students, the account—still up at @msdcamo2—became a home for “clear backpack clapbacks.” (Cardenas was never a student at MSD, he says, but knew several people affected by the violence.) “This is not effective: It’s a poor solution, it’s a waste of time and money, and it does not make the students feel secure,” he says. “It feels like the students have had their freedom taken away from them.”
But more than a year later, clear backpacks—like the fears of random violence that they embody—haven’t gone anywhere. Along with active-shooter drills, metal detectors, and visitor’s badges, the transparent accessories are now familiar elements in the security theater that laces the American public education experience.
The number of schools that require clear backpacks isn’t known; school security experts say it’s small. But the market appears to be expanding: Such bags are also increasingly mandatory music festival gear, paired with flower crowns and glitter. Transit commuters, stadium-goers, and patrons of everything from comedy marathons to folk concerts are urged to lug them around. There’s an emerging industry of security-optimized packs and bags; several brands have capitalized on the trend.
But what, if anything, do these PVC-scented reminders of The Worst That Could Happen accomplish to improve public safety?
In 1998, a year before the two shooters at Littleton, Colorado’s Columbine High School left 13 dead, fears of school violence in America were on the rise. In December 1997, a 14-year-old high school freshman in West Paducah, Kentucky, took a pistol out of his backpack and opened fire, killing three classmates and injuring several more. That mass shooting was just one in a string of high-profile incidents that had parents and school administrators on edge. In the fall of 1998, President Bill Clinton convened a special White House conference on school safety.
Amid this unease, some schools took pre-emptive action. In June, after “recent and numerous school shootings that occurred throughout America,” Alexandria, Louisiana’s Rapides Parish school district decided to institute a see-through and mesh bag policy for the coming school year. “Clear book bags,” Sarah Crook wrote in Alexandria’s Town Talk newspaper. “Here to stay or gone for good?”
See-through personal accessories were originally about fashion, not safety. Clutches made of lucite plastic emerged in the late 1940s and ‘50s, becoming a glam trend popular among movie stars and Miami Beach vacationers. In the 1990s, the Hollywood Reporter claimed, rave culture had appropriated and democratized plastic totes. Clear bags became obligatory at music festivals like Ultra, as organizers cracked down on the drug-hiding. But in the mass-shooting era, clear bags emerged with a different mission: to help school districts see into their students’ lives.
In Alexandria, the clear backpack rule sent “parents and students into a tail-spin,” the local paper reported. Area businesses rushed to stock their shelves with them; students prepared to part with the regular backpacks their parents had already bought. Two weeks before the start of the school year, the board reversed the decision, first saying they’d let each school decide their own policy, and then putting off the decision entirely until the 1999-2000 school year. By 1999, Town Talk wrote that clear backpacks were “one of the hottest items to hit stores,” according to then-Target executive Brad McPherson. (Target, which now carries clear backpacks emblazoned with college mascots, declined to comment for this article.)
Rapides Parish was hardly the only school debating backpacks and security in the pre-Columbine era. Earlier that decade, some schools had banned backpacks altogether. Grayson, Kentucky’s East Carter High instituted a backpack freeze after a 1993 shooting that killed a teacher, a policy that, as Isabel Fattal wrote in The Atlantic, warped students’ perceptions of what high school was like for years to come. When Nicole Martin, who graduated from East Carter in 2001, had a daughter of her own, she told Fattal she couldn’t believe her school allowed her to carry a backpack at all.
But the Columbine massacre in April 1999 dramatically raised the stakes on school security. The shooters wore trench coats, so some schools banned them; the shooters carried some of the deadly firearms used in the attack in backpacks and duffel bags, so schools got rid of them, or enforced strict plastic backpack policies.
Decades later, trench coats are back, but school shootings remain a core American anxiety: The number of violent incidents in schools hit a new high in 2018. That same year—19 years after after Columbine, six years after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school—Parkland’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School joined several other schools across the country in instituting clear or mesh backpack policies.
Other schools have followed. In October, a day after a weapon was found on a high school student in Douglas, Arizona, parents and students in the district were alerted that backpacks would be banned altogether. After a school board meeting, the policy was changed—the only backpacks and bags allowed moving forward would be either clear or measuring smaller than a hand. “Any item that does not meet approved criteria shall be confiscated and returned at the end of the day,” read a Facebook post by the school.
Seeing the growing market potential for see-though gear, Bobby Lin launched The Smarty Co., a heavy-duty clear backpack company, in 2017. Since then, the former Apple engineer has seen business double each year, as more school districts—especially in Southern states like Texas, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia—turn to the company to fill bulk orders, or to offer backpacks to students who don’t have the means to buy them themselves.
“In 2018, I think it was more of a shock factor for a lot of students. But now that they see, oh wow, it’s cool—they’re asking their parents for our brand,” he says. “This year I think that a lot of more schools are warming up to the idea.”
The company doesn’t just supply backpacks; it sells gym bags and lunch bags, and is planning on launching a line of clear purses. The market ranges from correctional officers (who have to carry clear gear on the job) to gym rats (some gyms won’t allow you to put your duffel of equipment on the floor unless it’s in a clear casing) to costume designers (honestly, they just want to be able to see their needles better). After a shooting at California’s annual Gilroy Garlic Festival this summer, transparent picnic bags and totes were nearly all you could see at San Francisco music festivals.
Browsing through Amazon’s clear backpack options, you’ll see dozens of other brands offering similar “stadium approved” gear. “For School, Security, Sporting Events,” they often suggest. Herschel Supply Co., a popular backpack retailer, sells a line of clear plastic models for $50 to $75, and also a clear fanny pack. Urban Outfitters, Target, Walmart, and even Victoria’s Secret sell see-through models.
“From our projections, next year more and more schools and stadiums and public events will start to require them as well,” Lin says. More people are carrying them preemptively, he says, to ease security hassles. Even where they’re not mandated—like at San Francisco’s NBA arena, the Chase Center—“there are people who still wear them because they can just breeze right through security; the personnel don’t have to rummage through their bag.”
At first, the mandates may seem inconvenient, Lin says. Then, you get used to them. “You say, hey, here’s the framework, let’s work within it,” he says. “And then why not have the one that matches your lifestyle or personality?”
That’s also how transparent backpacks are advertised on Vera Bradley’s website: “Three school- and stadium-ready pieces that meet the regulations, but still have all the pops of personality you’d expect from us.” If you have to live in constant low-level fear, you might as well do so in style.
Beyond their aesthetic qualities, clear plastic can be a challenging material for a heavy-duty bag: Based on a survey of online ratings from shoppers, many backpack buyers complain about their flimsiness. “These things suck,” one parent wrote on Reddit. “You’re lucky if your kid can even get thru one semester with this junk. Last year I had to buy 2 and now another.”
And some students do not seem to have warmed to the products. After Texas’ Cypress Fairbanks School District instituted a clear backpack rule last year, it released an FAQ. No, colored backpacks weren’t allowed. Yes, non-transparent athletic bags and instrument cases are allowed, but only if they’re stored immediately upon arriving at school. And no, the policy didn’t constitute a privacy violation. “We understand the concern regarding the privacy of certain items contained within backpacks. Students will be permitted to carry such items in a small makeup pouch or purse within the backpack.”
Not all students were satisfied. Conor Fulbright, a student at the high school, started a Change.org petition addressed to the district’s superintendent, Mark Henry. “While it is much appreciated that the Cy-Fair Administration has been making an effort to protect our children … A clear backpack policy will do nothing but simply increase the risk of another tragedy,” he wrote. “The root of a vast majority of these events is bullying. Exposing the personal items of students will increase bullying, and will inevitably increase the risk of a shooter.” He notes that the policies are easily thwartable, and suggests just enforcing a size limit instead.
Gun safety experts tend to be similarly skeptical of backpack rules. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re useless,” says Michael Dorn, the executive director of the school safety nonprofit Safe Havens International. He’s heard some principals sing the praises of clear backpacks: Once, a child brought a turtle to school, and the principal was able to intervene quickly. “But generally speaking, it’s very easy to conceal weapons in them.”
Pistols and knives can be hidden in transparent bags just as easily as tampons can, he says: Inside tennis shoes, or wrapped up in T-shirts. Musicians could cram a larger gun into a music case, and football players could stuff them in gym bags. “In our experience, most of the students figure out the limitations of them,” says Dorn, whose organization has consulted over 8,000 K-12 schools on safety policies. “They’re not that hard to defeat in relation to the inconvenience they cause.”
He says some schools he advised told him they adopted clear backpack policies only to later drop or loosen them “because they found it was not very effective.” He can’t recall ever advising a client to institute the requirements. “It could help a little bit to speed up screening, but you’d have to do the same things you’d have to do with or without clear bags,” says Dorn. “You have to look inside to see if anything contains a firearm.”
Even back in the pre-Columbine 1990s, kids were raising these concerns. “A clear backpack cannot tell you if a child is meditating something illegal or hurtful, such as bringing a gun to school with the intent to use it,” wrote Patrick Richardson and Norisha Kirts, members of the Town Talk’s Youth Council. “[I]f someone is intent on bringing a weapon to school, they will. Just as plain as that.”
Lin wouldn’t comment on whether or not he thinks they’re effective—there isn’t enough data to say either way, he says.
But the hope among schools that pursue such measures is that, like instituting mandatory visitor screening and metal detectors, forcing people to carry clear bags is a gentle-but-persistent means of discouraging malicious activity. If it’s even a little bit harder to walk into school with a weapon—or with alcohol, which spurs a lot of the more minor stadium altercations, Dorn says—some violence could be quelled.
Backpacks might also have a kind placebo effect that helps ease student anxieties about their classmates: By insisting no one has anything to hide, they could show students just how little there is to fear. Basically, in a nation with 393 million civilian-owned firearms, a clear-backpack rule is better than doing nothing, schools say.
“We understand that no single measure is the answer, but that a layered approach will help in the prevention, identification/intervention and response to potential school threats,” Cypress-Fairbanks Superintendent Henry told CityLab in a statement.
Regardless of their effectiveness, Dorn has a more fundamental objection to these security policies: They address a problem that has long been overstated. School shootings may be framed as an epidemic, but only 1.2 percent of homicides are committed at school. Fears of mass shootings and the increasingly aggressive counter-measures they inspire affect far more people than violence itself, he says. Programs like active-shooter drills have made recruiting teachers more difficult, and could be inflicting psychological trauma on students.
In this atmosphere, clear backpacks might even be making things worse, Dorn says. “It can be very counterproductive to present to people an image of security that is not realistic,” he says. If it fails, the institution is seen as incompetent, and trust in the systems of protection is lost.
“There is a place for physical security, no question about it. However, the human elements—the behavioral training and threat assessment and self-harm assessment processes, etc—those are by far the most reliable,” he says. “What we often see is the more [schools] go for simple solutions—like metal detectors or putting a cop in every school, arming teachers, clear book bags—the less they’re doing the things that are the most important.”
Fulbright, who says only a few hundred people signed his petition when he first posted it last spring, was surprised to see the signatures had now surpassed 10,000. But he’s not surprised that others share his clear-backpack hatred. “I’ve personally gone through seven of them. They snap and they tear,” he says. “They’re completely useless and they just make my life harder.”
Though the Cypress-Fairbanks superintendent says the bags’ intent is to curb gun violence, “I also think there’s another—not necessarily secret, but another reason,” he added, “to reduce the amount of vaping and drugs and whatnot in school.” (It doesn’t stop that, either.)
At Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, students’ frustration has been heeded. When students returned to the classroom in September last year, the clear backpack policy was gone. In its place: metal detectors.