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Bulletproof backpacks? Deadly shootings have parents adding to back-to-school list


It’s a grim back-to-school accessory for our anxious times: bulletproof backpacks.

The backpacks are one more element of the debate over the accessibility of assault weapons as the nation reels from the mass shootings in Gilroy, Texas and Ohio.

“No parent should ever have to contemplate buying their child a bulletproof backpack to keep them safe at school,” presidential candidate and former state attorney general Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted in June.

Yet many parents, shaken by the latest atrocities, are worried that their children’s school will be the next target.

“The backpack has been a popular item,” Yasir Sheikh, whose Skyline USA manufactures the Guard Dog Security bulletproof backpacks sold at Office Depot and other retailers, told CNBC this week. “We have sold out a few times this year.”

Office Depot and OfficeMax are among a number of retailers selling the bags. At the south Sacramento Office Depot on East Stockton Boulevard, prices for the Guard Dog-brand backpacks ranged from $179.99 to $204.99.

There, customers like Juliet Linden were met by displays of student backpacks and other back-to-school supplies. A hand-drawn poster touted a backpack donation drive for a local elementary school. The group of bulletproof backpacks hung in a rear row.

Linden lives in a rural area outside Sacramento and has two school-aged daughters. Both her girls’ schools have strong relationships with law enforcement and Linden says she feels her children are safe.

Still, the possibility of a school shooting is “always in the back of my mind,” she said.

“It’s pretty crazy that you have to worry about that — especially for the price — but it’s understandable,” Linden said. “As a parent in this day and age, you worry more and more about things like this.”

Students do, too. Nearly 60% of U.S. teenagers between 13 and 17 said they were very or somewhat worried that a shooting could happen on their campus, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the two months after the February 2018 mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The same Pew survey concluded most parents shared their children’s concerns.

Brandi D. Liles and Dawn Blacker are attuned to families’ anxiety as child psychologists at UC Davis Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital in Sacramento.

“Understand, people have an urge to do something,” Liles said. “As a professional, is there research to show that these things are effective or does it increase anxiety for kids? As parents, teachers and security, we can do much more essential work around this than giving kids a backpack and not talk about it.”

Liles and Blacker cite the resources on mass violence developed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and coordinated by UCLA and Duke University, with its guidelines for parents to help children after a recent shooting and for teens coping after mass violence.

Look for common reactions, they said. Fears that another shooting is going to happen; a change in activity level or difficulty with sleep. And reestablish routines to reclaim some normalcy.

“Giving your child the space to ask questions – we know avoidance will lead to anxiety,” Blacker said.

“You can validate their fears but get them back into their routines as soon as possible,” Liles said.

Lori Alhadeff carries a backpack. She believes a bulletproof backpack may have saved her daughter’s life. The gear is required equipment for her daughter’s surviving brothers.

Alhadeff’s daughter, Alyssa, was 14 when she and 16 others were killed in the Parkland massacre on Valentine’s Day 2018. Alyssa left behind her parents and two younger brothers.

Alhadeff and husband, Ilan, have since gone on to found Make Our Schools Safe, a national school safety non-profit group.

Alhadeff said they lived in what they called the “Parkland bubble.” Then came the day that changed everything.

“After the tragedy, one of my requirements for my two sons was for them to have a (bulletproof) backpack to go back to school. If all else fails, they’ll at least have that,” Alhadeff said.

“It’s so bad that we have to think about these types of things — God forbid, I hope (my sons) never have to use it — but if she had that bag, it might have saved her life. I even take my backpack when I go other places.”

“There are people who won’t go there yet,” she said of bulletproof backpacks. “I absolutely thought I would never go there either, then you change the way you think about everything,” Alhadeff said. “It’s something to protect themselves if everything fails.”

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