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Weighty Issue

Educators--and Wheels--Help Lighten Students' Backpack Burdens


The weight of Ventura sixth-grader Roxanne Buckridge's world is resting on her shoulders.

Crammed into the girl's backpack are her social studies book, binder, novel, gym shoes, socks, two water bottles, four pens, one pencil, two dollar bills, and about 80 cents in change. All that weighs 17 pounds--or nearly a third of her own petite build.

Across town, fifth-grader Kayla Lewis has found a trendy solution: a backpack on wheels. All over Ventura County, young students are returning to campuses this year with the suitcase-like rolling packs--making some schools look like busy airports.

Kayla says she is happy to get the load off.

"When we have a lot of homework, I feel lucky because I have a rolly backpack," the 10-year-old said.

Ever-heavier backpacks, causing students to lean over--and sometimes, fall over--have been a concern for parents and teachers for years. But now doctors are warning that heavy packs can lead to headaches, back and neck pain and muscle soreness among children and teens.

In extreme cases, they say, heavy backpacks may even contribute to scoliosis, a painful curving of the spine.

But schoolchildren say they don't have a choice, because many don't have lockers to store their books and supplies. And many bring items in their backpacks for after-school sports and child-care programs.

"Backpacks are becoming a portable life-support system for some of these kids," said Terry Schroeder, a Westlake Village chiropractor.

"They're carrying everything they need for the day, and more. Kids shouldn't carry that much weight. Their spines can't handle it."

Over the past few years, Schroeder and other chiropractors have seen an explosion in back problems among children, some as young as 7 years old.

In response, medical organizations such as the American Physical Therapy Assn. and the American Chiropractic Assn. have published backpack safety tips for students and parents. Backpack manufacturers have designed new packs to distribute weight more evenly. And parents have lightened their children's load by buying packs with extra shoulder and back support, or the newest fad--"rolly backpacks."

During her back-to-school shopping this year, Myra Nunley bought a backpack on wheels for her 12-year-old son Ian. Ian often carries two or three textbooks home and walks about three miles round trip to the bus stop.

But after a week at his Ventura middle school, Ian decided it wasn't cool to roll a backpack. So he traded bags with his 9-year-old brother, Dylan, who was thrilled to get the pack on wheels.

"I was excited because I really, really wanted one," Dylan said. "You don't have to, like, carry it on your back. You can just pull it."

The backpack dilemma has many sources, educators say.


In recent years, many schools have eliminated lockers for fear of students stashing guns, drugs or explosives. During the same time, textbooks have become heavier, sometimes weighing 5 or 6 pounds each. The workload has also increased, parents say, prompting students to bring more books home each night.

Teens don't help matters. Worried about looking cool, they often sling their 30-pound packs over one shoulder or loosen the straps so the backpacks hang low on their backs, straining their shoulders.

"Some of the sixth-graders only weigh 75 pounds," said Anacapa Middle School Principal Dave Myers. "So with the backpacks on, they're like turtles. If they fell over, they wouldn't be able to get up."

Chiropractors and pediatricians say schoolchildren should not carry more than 15% of their body weight on their backs. They also advise students to pack the heaviest items near the bottom of the pack and to wear padded straps on both shoulders.

Although the rolling backpacks aren't too popular among older students, they are picking up steam with the younger kids.

At Poinsettia Elementary School in Ventura earlier this week, about a dozen youths rolled their backpacks across the quad, looking more like tiny flight attendants than students.

Rolling backpacks have drawbacks. Students can't easily climb stairs with them. They can be clumsy to maneuver, and children still have to twist their backs slightly to roll them.

Schroeder called rolling backpacks "the lesser of two evils."

After treating dozens of children with back and neck problems, Schroeder and his wife, Lori, were convinced the problems stemmed from heavy packs. So they designed their own backpack.

"Posture Pack" has wider, padded shoulder straps, more cushioning on the back and several different compartments. Much like a hiker's pack, the bag includes a belt that wraps around the waist and takes the pressure off children's neck and shoulders.


Paulette Walker bought a Posture Pack for her daughter Erin, a fourth-grader at Red Oak Elementary School in Oak Park, after she complained of pinching in her lower back.

"We buy all these cute plastic backpacks and we just don't think about it," Walker said. "They end up pretty heavy. When I tried Erin's old backpack on, it hurt my own back."

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