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Towers implements backpack policy at West

Some students, parents not happy with new rule

Sept. 11, 2012

Safety in his school will always be David Towers' No. 1 priority.

It's why the second-year Waukesha West High School principal implemented breath tests during school dances last year - something that had been applied at his former school, Germantown High School.

And it's why Towers has implemented another rule - no backpacks or purses between classes - something that was also a rule at Germantown, where he spent five years as the school's assistant and associate principal.

In a letter posted on the school website a couple of weeks before the start of the 2012-13 school year, Towers notified parents and students that while students can bring backpacks and purses to school they can no longer be carried to class.

Students will be allowed to carry a small pencil case up to 12 inches in length and 7 inches wide and/or a form-fitting laptop or iPad case for their electronic devices.

Towers said he didn't anticipate enacting a backpack or purse policy when he came to West and admitted some students were worried about that last year because they knew Germantown's rule.

But Towers said a change was needed after many incidents that included teachers suffering a concussion and back injuries after tripping over backpacks in the halls and in classrooms. In addition, as a way to eliminate thefts and drug possession in backpacks and purses (something Towers said occurred last year), he felt it was best to implement the policy.

"We're not trying to inconvenient students," Towers said. "We're trying to create a safer school and while we'd all love to have fewer restrictions, my job is to create the safest environment for students and staff."

Facebook group fights back

All Waukesha West students, however, aren't in favor of this policy. Brittney Layber is one of them. She created the Facebook group, "Fight back against backpack ban" and has received plenty of posts from West students and parents disagreeing with the ban.

Towers said he was aware of the online group and has heard from disgruntled individuals.

"Prior to school starting, there was quite a bit ofapprehension," Towers said. "Any change is difficult and we're always assessing if it's effective. But just from what I can tell now, students are adjusting and while some might not like it, ultimately they will understand."

Some students and parents noted on the Facebook page that they already voiced their concerns to Waukesha School District Superintendent Todd Gray. Gray said he appreciates their qualms but sees Towers' perspective.

"I believe that Principal Towers' plan here is very well-intended in trying to proactively eliminate or reduce some problems that also impact nearly every high school in this state, while at the same time paving the way for an environment conducive to personalized learning," Gray said. "I would hope West parents appreciate his efforts in trying to make West a safe, more orderly and ultimately more productive environment for students. Barring any unforeseen major problems, I believe this warrants a reasonable trial run."

Gray observes at West

Gray said he was at West every day last week at different times observing the halls at student passing times and hasn't seen any problems.

"I have seen very little in the way of students not being able to get from class to locker and again to the next class," Gray said. "I have seen no large-crowd congregations that often used to block hallways and I'm assuming it's because students need to keep moving to get to class on time."

Gray further explained that during his observations he did not hear any inappropriate language in the halls, something that was more prevalent when students could linger around more between classes because they already had their books in their backpack.

Gray said one teacher told him that students seemed to get to class a bit earlier and were not rushing in at the last second. He said that because the students are focusing more on getting to their locker and then to class it has eliminated "public displays of affection" by students, something Towers said he is trying to eliminate as well.

"Overall, I think the students have done a wonderful job in handling this bit of adversity," Gray said. "However, these are observations after four days."

That backpack rule at Towers' old school, Germantown, has been in place for more than 10 years and it's a policy principal Joel Farren said is simply now "part of the culture" and is a "non-issue."

Less 'idle time' in halls

Farren added that while he and Towers were assistant principals five years ago at Germantown, a ban was later put on purses due to substance-abuse problems.

"We promise student safety and whether it's one person doing it, in terms of drugs or bringing weapons, that's a big enough problem," Farren said. "We want a safe environment and doing something small like keeping backpacks in lockers helps."

When the rule changed there, Farren said there weren't too many complaints and explained that he was surprised by the attention and backlash the rule change at West has received.

"There have been no issues with the rule (here) and I'm a firm believer in it," Farren said. "And I can't remember the last time I had to warn a student about a backpack."

Towers said the consequences at West would be a warning first and then making sure students are educated on the rule before further disciplinary action is taken. The principal added that he is always open to discussing the rule and having an open line of communication with students and parents.

While Towers added backpack policies are "a lot more common than it's made out to be," administrators at Waukesha North and Waukesha South haven't followed his lead.

However, Gray expects those schools to watch West's approach closely and said he will continue to review developments at West throughout the first semester.

"Some other areas that I want to examine here is the potential for less bullying-type activities or when there is less idle time in the halls and whether other idle-time hallway disciplinary problems are reduced," Gray said.

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