Joe Burns: Don't forget the bullet-proof backpack

Joe Burns

Back-to-school shopping season has begun, and this year something new has been added to the shopping list — a backpack that protects students from attack.

“My Child’s Pack,” a bullet-resistant backpack created by a couple of Danvers dads — Mike Pelonzi and Joe Curran — out of concern for their own children’s safety, is available on-line through their company, MJ Safety Solutions.

The pack, which went on the market this month and is designed to be used as a shield to protect the torso and head as well as the back, has a lightweight bullet-resistant plate sewn into it that, according to a video demonstration, can withstand a shot from a 9 mm Glock, a 22 cal. long rifle, or an attack by machete, knife or ax.

The online video demonstration/sales pitch is set to Neil Young’s “Ohio,” a mournful reminder of the shooting of Kent State students by National Guard troops. The video shows the image of a weapons-brandishing Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, as well as other video images of school shootings. It provides statistics as to the number of students killed or wounded in schools since the Columbine school massacre, followed by the claim that, “In almost 97 percent of these documented incidents, MJ Safety Solutions backpack could have provided the ballistic protection that could have saved lives.”

While the sales pitch appears to be designed to tap into parental paranoia, Pelonzi seemed to be sincere in his intentions when he spoke to me by phone. He said he and Curran came up with the idea following the Columbine school killings and have been working at developing the product since then. He said his and Curran’s children use the backpack. But who else is and why?

Pelonzi said he didn’t know specifically where his product was being sold other than that he’s been receiving orders from all parts of the country.

With a $175 price tag, the packs, which include a zippered pocket for an MP3 player and earphone exit, would appear to be beyond the means of those whose children would be most in danger of being shot or stabbed.

But even though the ever-present danger of gang-related violence is not found equally in all parts of the country, history has taught us that acts of random violence can occur anywhere. The seeds of fear have been sown everywhere.

It doesn’t matter whether we believe the marketers of My Child’s Pack are conscientious fathers providing protection for their loved one and others or opportunists feeding on those fears. And it doesn’t matter if we think those purchasing the packs are over-protective or responsible parents. The fact is if there weren’t so many kids carrying guns and knives, there’d be no market for a bullet-resistant backpack.

According to Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006, a report issued by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2005 6.5 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 reported carrying a weapon on school property within the past 30 days. And 18.5 percent said they carried a weapon either on or off school property.

A breakdown by region wasn’t available for that year, but in previous years — 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2003 — the figures for urban, suburban and rural regions were comparable. Though all have shown a decline, it isn’t enough.

If anyone of us would even consider buying a bullet-resistant backpack for our child, what does that say about how safe we feel our child is in school? And if we don’t feel our children can go to school without fear of being shot or stabbed, why in the world are we sending them there?

Life was not always this way. Pelonzi pointed out that when he went to school there were fire drills; now there are also lockdown drills.

Violence in schools isn’t new. But the means to do violence has changed. More guns and knives are in the hands of adolescents than in the past and one can only assume it’s because they have become easier to obtain.

And while Cape schools have so far avoided the carnage carried out in other parts of the country and the state, we are not immune from the epidemic that has gripped this country.

In January 2005, a Sandwich student was hospitalized with a punctured lung and two others were wounded in a stabbing during a brawl on school grounds. In December 2006, two Cape Cod women, 19 and 20 years of age, took part in a drive-by shooting in South Yarmouth. And last month a teenager was shot through a window and killed while sitting in a Hyannis home. Those are just a few of the crimes committed by and upon our youth in recent years.

Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, but they mean nothing if they’re not enforced, if gun owners don’t take proper precautions in securing their weapons or if states with lax gun laws make it easier for guns to be brought into Massachusetts. We need to have tough federal laws regarding the ownership, carrying or use of guns (something you’d think we’d already have following 9/11.)

But while the ready availability of guns seems a recent phenomenon, knives have always been easy to obtain. Still, their use by adolescents hasn’t always been as common, which indicates that any solution has to be more than a matter of more laws or better backpacks. It means giving our children a sense of pride and hope.

There’s a gift many of us were given when we were young: a respect for ourselves and others, and a sense that there is more in life than just the moment.

And our failure to pass that along to our children is our shame, and there’s no shield to protect us from that blame.

If you have an idea for a “Who Cares” column, you can call Joe Burns at 508-375-4936 or e-mail him at jburns@cnc.com.