Waco ISD now requiring clear backpacks for middle, high schools

Clear bag policies have become standard in many large capacity venues, and are becoming the norm in school districts across the nation. Katy Mae Turner | Photographer

By Caitlyn Meisner | Copy Editor

Starting Monday, Waco ISD required all middle and high school students in the district to use clear backpacks throughout the school day.

Dr. Rachelle Warren, assistant superintendent of Waco ISD, said this decision came from concerns over campus safety and the safety of students, faculty and staff.

“Making sure that they feel safe in not just a literal way, but in terms of their sense of well-being is incredibly important to us,” Warren said. “We’ve been listening more than anything else [and] paying attention to what’s happening at a state and national scale.”

As the administration discussed options to address campus safety, Warren said clear backpacks was repeatedly mentioned as a potential measure.

Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit led by families and loved ones of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, published statistics saying guns are the leading cause of death of American children and teens and more than 338,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since 1999.

In September 2022, Waco High School had its own active shooter threat, which turned out to be a hoax.

Jeremy Davis, Waco ISD board trustee, said the administration was motivated to make the change to clear backpacks after four incidents of finding guns on campus at Waco High School this school year.

Davis said this transition is a part of a “long-term visibility” goal for staff and students to see the district’s commitment to campus safety.

“We hope that coupled with restorative practices this will help further the effort to create a safe environment,” Davis said.

The district is implementing metal and vape detectors, random searches and mandatory IDs in addition to clear backpacks. Warren and Davis said these measures are part of their long-term investments to safety.

“Our social-emotional learning curriculum or our wellness efforts that we have for our staff members… are things that are available and very helpful in terms of creating that safe learning environment, but they’re not things that everybody can see,” Warren said. “It was really important for us to provide some measures that were visible and easily understood by our students, staff members and their families.”

Warren and Davis said the district will be providing the backpacks for students through funding from the pandemic and donations from local organizations. Davis said many local churches assisted, along with the NAACP and Family of Faith.

Warren said the district provided the backpacks so every family can comply with the new rules in lieu of each family having to purchase a new backpack, which can become expensive. Current prices on Amazon for clear backpacks range from $12 to upwards of $45.

Alice Jauregui, executive director of communications for the district, said Waco ISD currently has 6,545 secondary students in the district and had to provide that amount so each student could comply with the new rule.

While this initiative is only in secondary schools right now, Warren and Davis said they are eyeing implementing this policy in elementary schools as well. They both said they have to see how this initiative goes on Waco’s secondary campuses before they make a decision for elementary students.

“Our families have the option right now of buying a clear backpack at the elementary level if they want to,” Warren said. “As we get into the summer months and those back-to-school sales start happening, it’s perfectly reasonable for families to go ahead and get one, even though it’s not required on their child’s campus.”

Orange, Calif., senior and Waco High School Baylor intern Ava Dunwoody said she’s happy Waco ISD administration is taking action for school safety. She said she was anticipating lots of pushback from students, but was pleasantly surprised.

“I expected them to at least resist and not want administration taking control, but in many ways I’ve been surprised at how well students have started following directions and guidelines,” Dunwoody said. “Students have expressed their frustrations with the district, but for the most part, students have been fairly compliant.”

Dunwoody said while she feels safe with this transition, it was “eerie” walking through the halls on Monday.

“It’s a constant reminder of the potential threat of gun violence in a school setting,” Dunwoody said. “I don’t particularly love thinking about that, but it’s absolutely a necessary precaution.”

She also said she was happy the district took action so quickly — especially within the same school year — since major decisions like this often take months to decide and then implement.

Warren said she encourages Baylor students teaching or volunteering in Waco ISD schools to talk with their mentor teachers if any concerns of safety arise.

“The safety of our staff members is truly at the top of our priority list, and that includes those who are here with us temporarily,” Warren said. “We’re treating this as the beginning of a long-term relationship, so we want to be able to hire [Baylor students] into those roles where [they’re] currently interning.”