by Ellie Silverman
When her sons were growing up in West Philadelphia, Monica Peay-Matthews taught them how to duck bullets: Stop and hit the ground. Find a wall. If you run, make sure to zigzag.
Now she is considering an additional precaution: buying them bulletproof backpacks.
Summer in Philadelphia has brought shootings at a rec center, playgrounds, and a graduation party on Father’s Day. On Aug. 14, the Tioga neighborhood became the center of the latest mass shooting, injuring six police officers.
Parents in the region tuned into news from El Paso and Dayton last month, watching as another mass shooting, and then another, unfolded at everyday places as people went about their everyday lives. One victim in El Paso, Javier Amir Rodriguez, 15, was weeks away from starting his sophomore year of high school.
With the new school year beginning, parents are sending off their toddlers to kindergarten and teenagers to high school. In between buying folders, pencils, new sneakers, and uniforms, parents are also trying to decide if they can buy a sense of safety.
The companies who make the backpacks, labeled “bullet resistant” or “bulletproof,” insist this purchase could at most save someone in an active-shooter situation and at minimum alleviate worries. Critics say these companies are profiting off fear, with many protective backpacks costing more than $100. Most would only stop bullets from handguns, not the semiautomatic rifles used in recent mass shootings. The Justice Department’s initiative that certifies law enforcement body armor does not test these products.
Researchers warn that no one has studied if bulletproof backpacks could save lives during a mass shooting. In telling kids how to use the backpack, health experts say, parents could cause more harm than good, especially for a generation of children dealing with increased rates of anxiety.
Even parents who aren’t interested in buying a bulletproof backpack are seeing them on shelves as they go about back-to-school shopping with their children. The backpacks are forcing discussions about the safety of schools and prompting questions about how the uniquely American problem of gun violence is shaping children’s lives.