NEWS

Small-purse rule becoming popular at high schools

Molly Beck

When Lanphier High School officials decided to ask female students to keep their purses small, they became the most recent in a long line of area school administrators to impose such a rule.

In October, a rash of violence among Lanphier’s students spurred the school to re-evaluate its security measures, including its policy on book bags and purses.

“Basically, we’re just trying to make sure we are providing a safe environment for all of our students,” said Lanphier principal Sheila Boozer. “Since we don’t allow large book bags, we found it easier to be consistent and to say no large purses.”

The rule, which is spreading throughout high schools, responds to a fashion trend female students seem to be pretty fond of lately.

Peruse the handbag section of Macy’s or Target, and the average size of a purse is not much smaller, if at all, than a typical book bag of a high school student.

“It (the no-large-purse rule) works for me because I don’t carry life around, but it doesn’t work for my friends,” said Springfield High School sophomore Ruth Chen.

Most schools in the area instituted similar restrictions on purses before Lanphier. But the reasons vary.

Nearly three years ago, administrators and faculty at Pawnee High School — a campus with fewer than 200 students — found the large purses were carrying too many distractions for high school students. Today, purses cannot to be larger than students’ notebooks, and they must be kept in lockers during the school day.

“All kinds of things were being carried into the classrooms — food and drink — and teachers were concerned what could be in the bag,” principal Judy Wilson said. “The same rule goes for book bags, which kind of fits into the same category. Part is a safety issue, and part is to discourage bringing anything into the classroom that shouldn’t be.”

The same no-large-purse rule applies at PORTA High School in Petersburg, but principal Darren Hartry said the change came because the district instituted a new safety plan.

“It was a safety committee recommendation -- just not being able to conceal things,” Hartry said.

One issue that arose with that decision at PORTA, Hartry said, and at other schools, was the need of female students to carry feminine products.

The rule at most schools in the area is that purses can be no larger than an 8 ½-by-11-inch piece of paper, which has proven to be plenty large enough to carry what women need, according to Lanphier English teacher Alice Armstrong.

Armstrong said the 700 female students at Lanphier have learned to accept the new rule.

“Naturally there was a little grumbling from the girls because we get attached to our purses, but, really, they were really cooperative,” she said. “It really hasn’t even been an issue after the first couple day.”

A campaign by Lanphier assistant principal Kelly Wickham to collect small purses for the students may have something to do with that.

At Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, where an identical rule is in place, Allie Carwile, a 14-year-old freshman, bought a small Coach purse for her first year of high school because of the restriction.

“I really don’t think it’s fair,” Allie said. “If somebody is going to bring in something illegal, they aren’t going to put in their purse. And for guys, they can put it in their pocket.”

Tripping over the bags, though, is another prominent reason for the new rule.

Three years ago, a teacher at Springfield Southeast High School tripped over a bag that was lying on the floor of her classroom and hurt herself, according to principal Jason Wind.

As class size increased, so did the number of book bags and purses under and near the students’ desks, Wind said.

“It’s not just that they have the bag in the room,” Wind said. “It’s that we’re trying to walk up and down the aisles to help kids and do what we’re supposed to do.”

That, along with the fact that classroom sizes vary widely at Southeast, were the only reasons to enforce such a policy, Wind said. Security did not play a major role in the decision, he said.

“The biggest issue is classroom size. We like to think we have a pretty safe school,” he said.

Glenwood High School in Chatham has no restrictions on what kinds of bags students can bring to class. Teachers make their own rules regarding the issue. Glenwood Middle School, however, does have a campus-wide no-large-purse rule.

“The temptation with a big purse is what you put in the big purse. It’s not the purse in and of itself,” social studies teacher Steve Welch said. “The teacher kind of sets a tone. They have access in my classroom, but some teachers say, “Don’t touch that backpack.’”

Welch said he trips over book bags every day, and he admits that something could happen as a result. But he won’t say that the school needs to change its policies.

“I still see book bags piled in the hallway on occasion or the bigger purses, but we haven’t had that one incident,” Welch said. “All it takes is that one incident. One third-person hearsay, and things get changed very quickly.”

Welch, who has been teaching for three decades, said he sees the value in such a rule, but that Glenwood isn’t at that point yet.

“The size of the purse and amount of security sends a definite signal to a student body. It is possible to be a deterrent. No one wants to look back and say they should have banned those purses,” he said.

“No, I don’t (think we need a restriction on purse size or book bags). Teachers here know their students, and we have a lot of security. I hope I don’t have to eat those words.”

Molly Beck can be reached at (217) 788-1526 ormolly.beck@sj-r.com.