School Lockers Are Making a Comeback

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The school locker, long feared as a repository of drugs and weapons, is making a comeback.

Some administrators are returning the metal boxes to campus, figuring it's better than creating a generation of students with back problems.

In one Orange County school district, a board member who watched a student wobble and fall over from the weight of her backpack has proposed reinstalling lockers in middle schools.

Fifty miles away, after receiving relentless complaints from parents and students, officials in the Pasadena Unified School District have begun unsealing lockers that had been shuttered since the 1970s.

"There was this perception that each locker was a den of iniquity," said Bill Bibbiani, director of research and testing for Pasadena Unified. "But there are better ways to handle problems than to treat each locker as if [it's] a hole-in-the-wall gang hide-out."

For decades, the locker--stuffed full of books, sports equipment and love notes--was the quintessential symbol of the American high school.

Then, in the late 1970s, it began to be seen in a sinister light. Potentially teeming with drugs and knives and covered with graffiti, lockers were torn from high schools and middle schools across the country and students were forced to haul their books on their backs.

After the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, officials feared that bombs also could be placed in lockers, and many schools that still had them couldn't rip them out fast enough.

But then some administrators realized that backpacks could be just as dangerous--and not just because students were staggering under their weight. Charles "Andy" Williams, charged in last spring's shooting at Santana High School in Santee that left two students dead and 13 wounded, allegedly hid his gun in one. That's why some schools now require students to carry see-through mesh backpacks.

Now, after much lobbying from parents and at great expense, lockers are back in vogue. No one keeps statistics on how many schools have placed orders--or even on how many ripped them out in the first place--but locker manufacturers nationwide report that business is booming, particularly in California, Arizona and the Gulf Coast area of Texas and Louisiana, where administrators were particularly fierce in eradicating them.

Across the country, new schools no longer are being constructed without lockers, said Harry Popolow, senior product manager for Penco Products, one of the nation's largest locker manufacturers.

"School systems took lockers away from kids and it was a direct result of the drug war," said Kathy Smith, president of the Anaheim Union High School Board of Trustees. Last month, she proposed reinstalling lockers in schools that do not have them. A handful of Anaheim schools never lost their lockers.

"I think it's immoral to punish all kids for what a few have done in the past," Smith said.

In Pasadena, once-reluctant administrators now concede that it was a good idea to bow to parental and student lobbying and dust off the old metal boxes.

Instead of banning lockers, Bibbiani said, school districts should pay more attention to the needs and problems of students on the campuses, and institute stricter punishments if drugs, alcohol or weapons are found.

"It's not that drugs aren't a concern, it's just that there are better ways to control it," he said. "Everybody thought that doing away with lockers was a way to control the drug problem--20 years later, we know now that it wasn't."

When workers last year reopened old lockers that had been sealed in the '70s, it was like opening a huge time capsule, Bibbiani said. Some still held old newspaper clippings and letters. Inside one was a vintage Pink Floyd poster.

Parents Lobby School Officials for Relief

Pasadena will use money from a school bond to reinstall lockers. That was the tack taken last year by the Palo Alto Unified School District, which agreed to reopen lockers after a group of parents calling themselves the "Backpack Relief Committee" began lobbying at school board meetings.

Relief does not come cheap: A single hallway locker costs about $140; multiply that times 1,000 or 2,000 students, add in the maintenance costs and the staff time to pry open doors for students who forget their combinations, and it's easy to see why some administrators could turn a blind eye to students stumbling across campus with bulging backpacks.

Of course, many districts never removed lockers in the first place. Others, such as Basset Unified in the San Gabriel Valley, say they have no intention of bringing them back.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, some campuses such as Marshall High School in Los Feliz use them, and others do not.

Patti Sako, director of state and federal programs for Basset Unified, said many students and parents want lockers because it is part of American culture.

"Every so often there's wishful thinking," she said. "Sometimes it will come up when people see old movies like 'Grease' and people think, 'Oh, that would be nice--to put our pretty little pictures in them.' "

But officials at Basset, which has only eight schools in its district, think the cost to replace lockers and the problems associated with them outweigh the benefits of lighter backpacks.

Instead, Basset students keep a set of books at home and a matching one in the classroom--an expense many districts cannot afford.

Part of what's driving the resurgence of lockers is districts' fears of liability. In many areas, parents have threatened to sue over spinal injuries. In Scottsdale, Ariz., where lockers were reintroduced last fall, school trustees said they feared lawsuits.

Whatever the reason for the lockers' comeback, manufacturers are happy to oblige.

It's come "at a very high price, to be honest with you. It's great for business," said Penco's Popolow.

This year, Penco is introducing electronic lockers, which can be monitored and controlled from the school's central office.

"This is the 'Big Brother' locker," Popolow said. "It will prevent Johnny from having drugs in his locker. If someone suspects that he does, all they have to do is push a button and go look in the locker. Lockers are part of the school's equipment, so there's no privacy rules."

From the office, administrators also can tell how many times a day a student opens a locker, and they can shut down selected blocks or even individual lockers.

Meanwhile, some schools in Texas have given students see-through lockers so administrators can scan for drugs and weapons amid the lunch bags and broken pencils.

Perhaps the only people more pleased with the rebirth than locker manufacturers are students themselves--and their parents, who no longer have to listen to them complain about their aching backs.

"We're looking forward to [lockers] coming back," said Marcy Bergman, a parent in Anaheim. "It's a huge health problem because of the heavy books [students] carry."

"I used to get jealous when my friends at other schools talked about their lockers," said Kristen Rude, a sophomore at Fullerton Union High School. "Everyone at my school would say, 'Oh, my back is just killing me.' "

But no more. This year, the PTA has ponied up nearly $20,000 to buy lockers for the school. They will be installed by October and rented to students for $30 a year. The Fullerton PTA copied that unusual strategy from nearby Sunny Hills High School, where PTA members snapped up lockers torn out of other schools to rent to students.

Kristen is anticipating a feeling of lightness as she walks from class to class. But she and her friends also can't wait to participate in a high school rite of passage that, until now, they've seen only in movies: anonymously slipping notes through the slats to that special someone.

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