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It's Time to Lift a Backbreaking Burden From Schoolchildren

April 22, 2002|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO

Crack cocaine or cracked vertebrae. Undeveloped minds or damaged spines. Higher costs or lower back pain.

Locker hideaways--feared repositories for drugs and guns--or back-busting backpacks likely to inflict early arthritis.

These are choices the education establishment inexcusably has left itself for California's backpacking schoolchildren.

Can't have it all, they say: a safe school, quality education, no new taxes and a pain-free sacroiliac.

Let the backs suffer, they conclude. But these aren't their backs so it's easy to be callous and cowardly. Easier to treat students like child laborers and schools like sweatshops than to make tough decisions about program cuts or tax hikes, inessential curriculum and obese textbooks.

Especially the overblown textbooks, built like armored boxcars and crammed with way too much junk. Pages often resemble Web sites, with more arrows and stars than an old country singer's polyester shirt. Too busy and makes you dizzy.

Who's editing these things? Clearly undisciplined committees whose members are unable to say "enough."

Today's textbooks can be nearly the size of city yellow pages, but they're printed on expensive glossy paper in multicolor ink with extra-thick hard covers. Weight: maybe 5 to 10 pounds. They're indestructible, but destructive to young backs. Not to mention the old backs of teachers.

The perpetrators are the people in charge: state and local school boards, legislators and the governor. Also textbook publishers.

The victims are 6 million school kids, kindergarten through high school. Far too many are forced to lug book-laden backpacks-- 15-25-35 pounds--from home to school to class after class and back home every day.

Their burdens started becoming noticeably heavier two decades ago when school districts began yanking out lockers and not building them into new schools. Lockers were hiding places for drugs and weapons, administrators feared. There also were legal flaps over locker searches versus students' privacy rights.

So they just junked the lockers. This also conveniently saved money. A locker costs around $140, which can mean $250,000 per new school, plus added hallway space.

Then the books bloated. The official explanation is new academic "standards." We're trying to cram more knowledge into children--regardless of whether they can absorb it or even need it.

Backpack pain is a nationwide ailment. Roughly 5,000 emergency room visits a year result from backpack injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In Riverside, back surgeon Thomas Haider runs the Children's Spine Foundation.

"One thing that bothers me is the younger kids coming in more and more with back pain," the doctor says.

"Data shows there's a clear correlation between the size of backpacks and back pain bad enough to see a doctor."

Physicians believe the maximum weight of a loaded backpack should be 10% to 15% of a child's body weight. Research shows that most packs exceed 20%.

Skeptics counter it's all in how the pack is carried. Too many kids just sling the bag fashionably over one shoulder, instead of balancing their load using both straps. Haider's response: "One shoulder is worse. But if you put it on both shoulders, there's a direct compression of the disc. That's no good either....

"Will it cause early arthritis? It probably will."

Last year, Haider called the assemblyman from Riverside, Republican Rod Pacheco, who had been watching his own kids slumping under backpacks. Pacheco introduced a bill appropriating $140,000 to study the issue, including the link between heavy packs and spinal damage.

The bill passed almost unanimously. But Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it, declaring "there does not appear to be any documentation of long-term problems."

"I don't think the governor read the bill," Pacheco says. "That was its purpose."

This year, Pacheco is getting help from two Democrats: tenacious Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz), a former Davis aide. They'll be joint authors.

"It's ironic that while promoting students' physical fitness, they're also placing them at long-term risk for back pain," Speier notes.

The new bill would require the state Board of Education to set maximum textbook weights and develop "creative solutions."

Maybe old-fashioned lockers. Buy separate texts for the classroom so kids can keep their books at home. But mainly lighten the texts. And split those back-breakers into two volumes.

This will cost dollars and the state's strapped. But we shouldn't be saving money by maiming children.

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