When her sons were growing up in West Philadelphia, Monica Peay-Matthews taught them how to duck bullets: Stop and hit the ground. Find a wall. If you run, make sure to zigzag.
Now she is considering an additional precaution: buying them bulletproof backpacks.
Parents in the region tuned into news from El Paso and Dayton last month, watching as another mass shooting, and then another, unfolded at everyday places as people went about their everyday lives. One victim in El Paso, Javier Amir Rodriguez, 15, was weeks away from starting his sophomore year of high school.
With the new school year beginning, parents are sending off their toddlers to kindergarten and teenagers to high school. In between buying folders, pencils, new sneakers, and uniforms, parents are also trying to decide if they can buy a sense of safety.
The companies who make the backpacks, labeled “bullet resistant” or “bulletproof," insist this purchase could at most save someone in an active-shooter situation and at minimum alleviate worries. Critics say these companies are profiting off fear, with many protective backpacks costing more than $100. Most would only stop bullets from handguns, not the semiautomatic rifles used in recent mass shootings. The Justice Department’s initiative that certifies law enforcement body armor does not test these products.
Researchers warn that no one has studied if bulletproof backpacks could save lives during a mass shooting. In telling kids how to use the backpack, health experts say, parents could cause more harm than good, especially for a generation of children dealing with increased rates of anxiety.
Even parents who aren’t interested in buying a bulletproof backpack are seeing them on shelves as they go about back-to-school shopping with their children. The backpacks are forcing discussions about the safety of schools and prompting questions about how the uniquely American problem of gun violence is shaping children’s lives.
“I just try not to think about it because I don’t want to freak myself out,” Zoë Harper, 17, said of the piece of Kevlar that’s been in her bookbag for a few years. She’s going into her senior year at Penncrest High School in Media. “I’m just used to it at this point.”
That there’s even a need for this debate troubles Peay-Matthews, a mother of three boys. Teaching her own children how to use the backpack would just be one more lesson on her list.
“It’s a shame that we even have to have bulletproof backpacks,” said Peay-Matthews, 48, a behavioral health specialist. “One side is looking at bulletproof backpacks because people come into schools and harm children. Then another set of people want a set of backpacks because our kids need to be safe coming to and from school.”
When it came time for Ari Taffet to start kindergarten, his parents bought a bulletproof insert for less than $100 and slid it into what looks like a laptop pouch in his backpack.
A year later, it’s still there, behind the “Take Home Folder” of schoolwork papers describing the shapes of letters, counting with circles, reading the months of the year and days of the week.. And they told Ari how to use it, his mom, Natasha Taffet, said, explaining how he can hide behind it, put his head down low, put it on his chest, or give it to his teacher so she can use it to help as many kids as possible. Even at 6, Ari has started asking questions about the news of shootings he overhears on NPR.
“I’ll have to calm him down and say that ‘They got him and everyone is OK,’ ” said Taffet, 38, of Point Breeze and a marriage therapist. “And remind him that he has a bulletproof backpack and he can protect himself.”
Bulletproof back-to-school gear isn’t new this year, but consumer demand continues to grow along with the number of people killed in mass shootings.
Steve Naremore, founder of the Houston-based company TuffyPacks, wanted to create bulletproof inserts that look more appealing than standard tactical black. So the company released products this year designed with Disney princesses like Jasmine, Belle, and Cinderella and another with Avengers characters like the Hulk and Captain America.
“It would look like it belonged there and not out of place,” Naremore said of the designs.
Disney demanded he cancel the prints. Still, he said sales continue to increase every year since 2016, and 95% of the customers are parents.
Nioka Wyatt, director of the fashion merchandising and management program at Thomas Jefferson University, said the retail and fashion industries must react to consumer demand, but emphasized that their response should be with “the right message.”
“I understand that entrepreneurs and retailers, you tend to develop product based out of a need, but this is a drastic need,” Wyatt said. “It sends a message of fear.”
One of Peay-Matthews’ sons stopped at a neighborhood convenience store for snacks on his way back from school. He was 15 at the time. And as he walked out, she said, a gunman shot at the guy directly behind him.
Her son dropped his bag and his purchased snacks and ran home terrified. That shooting three years ago was when Peay-Matthews decided they needed to move out of the Mill Creek neighborhood in West Philadelphia to Roxborough before her kids become victims. But she also knows moving can’t entirely protect her children from shootings..
A majority of U.S. teens are very or somewhat worried about a shooting happening at their school, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study. Most of the teens’ parents agree, the study found.
Sonali Rajan, a health education associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said experts don’t know exactly how active-shooter drills or bulletproof backpacks affect a student’s ability to learn, but she can predict from other research that this is not always in the best interest of a child’s development.
“It really has reframed for this generation of children what a school is and should be,” Rajan said.
Mara Hincher of West Philadelphia recently talked to her 10-year-old daughter, Lucy, about bulletproof backpacks, and the child pointed out that they wouldn’t cover her head and that she could still be shot in the arms and legs.
After the El Paso shooting, Hincher, 48, said Lucy told her how hide and seek has become more than a game.
“Hide and seek can be used for fun and it’s good practice if you're ever in a shooting or something,” Lucy said, “or a situation where you have to hide.”
The backpack itself isn’t what would cause a problem, said Dominic Gullo, a professor of early childhood education at Drexel University. It’s what they represent.
Children will often associate fearful experiences with a location, Gullo said. So if on the way to school, children are conscious of grabbing their bulletproof backpack, it could trigger thoughts like "I might be in danger. I need to act quick. Whatever I do with that backpack might save my life.” Then they could start to associate school with fear and anxiety.
Peay-Matthews sees how the trauma from violence affects both her children and those she sees in schools as a behavioral health specialist.
She thinks about the times gunshots rang out during neighborhood basketball games and she ran with her children. She thinks about the drive-bys and petty fights she says too often end with more victims.
So she talked to her two older sons, ages 19 and 13, and asked if the bulletproof backpack was something they would wear.
The only question came from her oldest son, who wanted to know what it looked like. Once she has time to research the best option over the next couple of weeks, she plans on making the purchase.
“They’re all for it,” she said, noting she wouldn’t buy one for her 9-year-old.
But Peay-Matthews doesn’t feel great about the decision, especially knowing so many families can’t afford to spend $100 or more on a backpack.