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Lockers Out, Backpacks In at Schools


George Hancock feared that the two years his son spent at El Rancho Middle School might leave his child permanently maimed--not from the psychological tortures of adolescence but from heaving 40 pounds of books every day.

"He couldn't ride his bicycle to school because he couldn't balance with his backpack on," Hancock told Orange Unified School District trustees last week. "It's not fair that our young people are risking spinal deformity just by going to school."

The idea of a school without lockers was unthinkable until a few years ago. Sick of vandalism, tardiness and constantly escalating repair costs, districts have begun eliminating what for generations has been an institutional fixture at schools across America.

At the board meeting that night, Hancock's plea hit its mark and the trustees unanimously agreed to spend $150,000 to provide students with two sets of textbooks in the middle schools where lockers were eliminated.

Those students are the lucky ones. Most schools cannot afford the luxury of buying extra books at $45 apiece.

Solutions for lugging books around at the suddenly locker-less schools are still haphazard, but school districts everywhere are exploring options for ridding themselves of lockers. Some now lock them with bars, some rip them off the walls and others simply leave them off the blueprints for new buildings.

What sent Brea-Olinda High School over the edge was the weekend vandalism that greeted administrators on Monday mornings, assistant principal Bill Tangeman said. As with most California schools, the lockers were outdoors in covered walkways, giving vandals easy access to start fires, spray graffiti, jam locks and steal textbooks, often setting torn papers to fly over the grounds.

"They would look for anything of value and if they didn't find it, they would just tear things up," Tangeman said.

To resolve the storage issue, students have a 10-minute break twice a day to get to their cars and exchange books. The rest of the time, the daily necessities of teenage living are found in the now ubiquitous backpacks.

Some parents are against the move. At Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, the Parent-Teacher-Student Assn. pays for the custodial care and upkeep of all lockers, which suits the administration just fine.

Barbara Gereb, principal of Dr. Leroy L. Doig Intermediate School in Garden Grove, was apprehensive about starting the school's first locker-less year this fall. Instead of removing the metal boxes, they disabled them, but kept them ready if the experiment failed. It didn't. Other benefits quickly became apparent.

"I cannot explain how profound the change is," Gereb said. "It permeates the whole environment. There is less class disruption, less tardiness, less noise, less theft. The students are more focused and the whole campus is different."

When parents worried early in the year, Gereb asked faculty to think of how to assign homework that does not require heavy textbooks. Students from low-income homes were discreetly equipped with free backpacks.

Extra textbooks were part of the equation when the evacuation of lockers began earlier this decade. Once the recession hit and textbook prices skyrocketed, that option was out for many.

Yet cost is an incentive for schools to rid themselves of the lockers in the first place.

"There are a lot of factors," said Ian Collins, principal of Ethel M. Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach. "We are very conscious of getting the biggest bang for the buck and lockers are a black hole for money. You have to look at the pluses and minuses and weigh the benefits."

While Dwyer provides duplicate social study texts, the heaviest books on campus, Collins conceded that that might end when new social study textbooks are adopted statewide in a few years. It's a question of priority, he said. Schools now need to buy computers and printers, which can cost $2,000 apiece.

The kids rely on their natural resiliency to cope.

"They do very well with their backpacks," Collins said. "Additionally, the hallways have more room now. It's brighter. It's lighter. It's safer."

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