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Trying to buck backaches

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Thursday March 22, 2001

“The spelling book is heavier than it looks,” said sixth-grader Margaret Lawrence, as she leaned forward against the weight of her giant backpack Wednesday. 

“The social studies book is a monster,” said Margaret’s mom, Melanie Lawrence, inviting a reporter to heft the bag, which indeed seemed more appropriate for a paratrooper than a middle schooler. 

A handful of concerned parents and about 20 students from Longfellow Arts & Technology Magnet Middle School gathered outside the school before class Wednesday to protest the weight of bags students must carry from class to class, and back and forth from school each day. 

According to a 1999 study by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, 58 percent of orthopedists reported seeing patients who complained of back and shoulder pain caused by heavy backpacks. The physicians also reported muscle strain among children carrying heavy loads in backpacks, and warned that the trend could lead some children to develop poor posture, notably excessive slouching. 

According to the study, children carrying a backpack that weighs more than 20 percent of their body weight are at risk of injury to their shoulders and spine. 

Longfellow eighth-grader Desiree Woods doesn’t need to be told by the AAOS. Woods said she weighs 92 pounds but totes around a backpack weighing in the 20-pound range. She regularly sees a chiropractor to help deal with pain and discomfort caused by the bag. 

“My chiropractor says it puts a lot of extra strain on the lower back where it shouldn’t be,” Woods said.  

Unlike other Berkeley middle schools, Longfellow has no lockers for students to store their books, gym clothes, lunch and other items during the day when they aren’t needed. 

During the planning process for the recently completed renovation of Longfellow’s main building, which dates back to 1923, it was determined that installing lockers would detract from the building’s historical character, said Longfellow Principal William Dwyer.  

Planners were mindful of the heavy backpack problem, however, Dwyer said. They budgeted thousands of dollars to buy enough math and science books for every student to keep one at home and one at school, thus cutting down on the load they carry back and forth each day. 

But parents Wednesday said the problem has yet to be adequately addressed. They would like to see lockers put into the school, they said, or at least see the school continue to address the issue in some way. 

“Is there some backpack-management training we can give the kids?” asked Longfellow parent Cynthia Papermaster, who organized the protest. “We ought to be talking about what we can do?” 

Dwyer said the issue hasn’t come up at the school’s Site Committee meetings, but said he is considering options to address the problem, including having physical education teachers instruct students how to safely lift and wear backpacks. 

Physicians interviewed in the AAOS study recommend that children: use a hip strap for heavier bags; use both back pack straps, firmly tightened, to hold the pack two inches above the waist; place the heaviest items close to the back; bend both knees when picking up a heavy back pack; and consider purchasing a backpack with wheels.