Editorial: School lockers:Solution or problem?

Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 21, 1999

Editorial: School lockers:Solution or problem?

Palo Alto district officials try to dodge pressure to reinstall lockers in secondary schools by focusing on alternatives

Asimmering debate over lockers on the secondary school campuses is threatening to come to a full boil Aug. 10 when the issue returns for more discussion before the Palo Alto school board.

School officials are faced with a determined group of parents who believe students' backpacks--often weighted with not only books but lunches, sweatshirts, musical instruments and other items--can be a hazard to their children's health. With parents viewing lockers as a place to "park" personal belongings, officials are trying to defuse the controversy by offering alternatives.

The locker issue has been on the minds of some concerned parents for years, but due to the persistence of a group at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, the school board now must deal with a carefully developed and well-reasoned proposal to install 600 lockers on the campus. Gunn High School's PTA and Site Council are asking for 150 lockers for a trial at that site.

While not rejecting lockers outright or making a specific recommendation, school Superintendent Don Phillips has made clear he doesn't believe investing in lockers is a good use of funds or the most direct way to reduce the weight of backpacks.

Phillips points to research showing that the trend at schools is toward removing lockers because of problems with vandalism, maintenance, contraband and what is vaguely described as "school climate concerns."

For some of these reasons and, officials say, because lockers made students late for class and created a racket when slammed shut, they were removed from the middle schools in 1991.

For almost every benefit offered by lockers, Phillips has a counterproposal aimed at accomplishing the same. For example, by completing the purchase of duplicate sets of textbooks in all classrooms, students shouldn't need to carry books back and forth from home. Storage rooms could be provided for musical instruments. Clearly, Phillips and most administrators regard lockers as nothing but a giant headache.

There is also a temptation to make this simply a debate over the health hazards, if any, of kids carrying heavy backpacks. But ask any student and you quickly realize that, to them, the issue is just as much about growing up and having a little bit of personal space at school to call their own.

Taking into account all the concerns, JLS parents have come up with a creative proposal: purchase and install new lockers, if necessary through parent funding, and then recoup the costs of purchase and maintenance by leasing lockers for no more than $50 per year (with scholarships provided where appropriate.)

Students and parents would sign a contract spelling out the rules, including that lockers would be subject to search at any time and that any abuse would result in cancellation of the contract and loss of the locker. The lease income would pay for the purchase within three years and thereafter go toward maintenance.

School officials need to pick their battles, and school lockers shouldn't be one of them. A lot of energy easily could be expended trying to implement alternatives to lockers that will never make locker proponents happy.

The school board should conditionally adopt the JLS proposal and then survey families to determine the level of interest. If there is significant interest, then we see no good reason not to move ahead.

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