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Bulletproof Backpacks Probably Wouldn't Keep Kids Safe In A School Shooting, Say Experts

What parents should know about the ballistic protection levels of these pricey and increasingly popular back-to-school items.

Bulletproof backpacks are becoming more and more popular, but experts say they aren't as effective a...
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Now that it’s officially time to send your kids back to school, you might be experiencing heightened fears about their safety in the classroom — fears that are far from unfounded, given that there have been 27 school shootings in the U.S. this year alone, and that’s before the start of the 2022 school year.

After each school shooting, parents understandably look for ways to help protect their children of all ages from such unimaginable circumstances, with NBC News reporting that sales of bulletproof backpacks had spiked 300% ahead of the 2019 school year — well before the tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, took the lives of 19 students and two teachers in late May. And that’s without mentioning the dozens of other shootings on school grounds as of late.

Although it’s a heartbreaking, downright infuriating reality that such a product even needs to exist, you might be curious whether or not bulletproof backpacks are actually effective in a real active shooter situation. Here’s the scoop on whether or not bulletproof backpacks should be on your back-to-school shopping list.

What is a bulletproof backpack?

Simply put, these backpacks either include a back panel made of a flexible ballistic fiber material (i.e., it’s capable of resisting or stopping bullets, shrapnel, and other projectile materials) that claims to meet performance standards set by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Some manufacturers also sell bulletproof inserts that can be added to an existing backpack or bag.

Though it might seem like these items would be hard to find, NBC News reports that plenty of major retailers have them in stock online and in stores, including Office Depot, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot, and Bed Bath and Beyond. They typically range in price from $99 up to $560, with bulletproof inserts typically costing around $129 — price points that would certainly be cost-prohibitive for many families.

Aside from school-aged children, these bags are also designed with older kids and adults in mind, including college students, teachers, and school staff, as well as people who commute via mass transit or want added protection in public spaces.

Would bulletproof backpacks really be effective?

While they might sound like a necessary layer or added peace of mind in an unpredictable scenario, it seems that most of the bulletproof gear currently on the market wouldn’t actually protect against the bullets used in most mass shooting situations.

As the only nationally accepted standard for the body armor worn by law enforcement and corrections officers, the NIJ ranks ballistic protection in five levels: Level IIA, Level II, Level IIIA, Level III, and Level IV, testing commercially available armor to ensure it meets these standards, which were first instituted in 1972.

The higher the rank, the better the protection offered against high-caliber bullets, and that’s where most of these products run into issues. According to the NIJ, very few meet the minimum performance requirements, making them ultimately ineffective against the semi-automatic rifles commonly used in the deadliest recent mass shootings, such as the AR-15 rifle used in the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018. Level III and Level IV are the only ones that protect against rifles. Most bulletproof inserts and backpacks are ranked at Level IIIA, meaning they can stop bullets from a 9-millimeter and a .44 Magnum handgun.

As Peter Diaczuk, professor of forensics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explained to NBC News, modern ammunition is simply too powerful to effectively be stopped by the products currently available commercially. “Rifle projectiles present a threat level greater than handgun and even shotgun ammunition. This is due to the higher velocity and consequently greater kinetic energy of a rifle bullet,” said Diaczuk.

Logistically speaking, it’s also not exactly practical for most children to carry one of these backpacks daily, as Carmelina Grilli, a former Texas elementary school teacher, pointed out to the Dallas Morning News after sales increased due to the Uvalde massacre. Aside from the obvious point — that children typically don’t have their backpacks on their person throughout the school day — in moments of terror and uncertainty, Grilli wondered whether or not a child would be expected to find their bulletproof backpack instead of fleeing or sheltering to safety as best as possible. If they did, the backpack wouldn’t offer protection for their entire body anyway.

Even if some protection is better than no protection, Florida-based parent Wendy Connor told TODAY Parents in 2019 that she purchased bulletproof backpacks for her children after the Parkland shooting, but their heavy weight made them difficult to carry. Los Angeles-based parent Jennifer Wharton added, “I don’t think any person, adult or child, is going to have the time or clarity of thought to grab a backpack and use it as a shield. Ask the Parkland students or the Sandy Hook children. The backpacks are also extremely heavy, and it would slow down anyone who is trying to take cover or run.”

So, should you buy a bulletproof backpack?

Of course, the decision is entirely up to you, and these products certainly offer at least some peace of mind amid what feels like endless uncertainty. But as Grilli told the Dallas Morning News, bulletproof backpacks are “like putting a band-aid on a wound expecting it to cure a symptom but ignoring the root of the problem.”

Kevin Eberle, EdD, retired school principal, educator, and former police officer, current education advisor with Evolv Technology, agrees. As he told Scary Mommy: “I believe it truly is a parent’s decision on what and how they can fortify their children’s safety while going to and from school. When it comes to safety within the school buildings, it is absolutely the responsibility of the administration and staff to develop a safe environment for all people while school is in session and reduce the fear and anxiety of students and teachers by securing the premises from violent acts including the use of weapons. With that said, I believe securing the building with technology and human capacity is essential.”

Ultimately, Eberle believes “knowing the school is safe from weapons can bring reassurance to parents about the safety of their children when at school. Developing a plan to alert all personnel of a weapons detection sets the tone and priority of a school district that safety is the number one concern before learning can begin. Reducing fear will increase student performance and attendance knowing the school building is safe.”

Until gun control measures on a statewide and nationwide level restrict access to such weaponry, it seems like parents will be stuck weighing the pros and cons of products like these. Keeping children and school staffers safe from the devastating effects of gun violence should be a non-negotiable, and lawmakers must do better.