School Board in Florida postpones vote on clear backpacks after parent cites a state law

Tribune Content Agency

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A Broward County schools clear backpack requirement could be delayed or derailed after a parent found an obscure state law to slow down the plan.

The School Board is postponing a vote on requiring clear backpacks for the new school year from June 13 to July 25, after a Plantation parent, Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, asked the board to first hold a workshop.

A state statute on policy rulemaking requires the School Board to hold a workshop if requested “by any affected person, unless the agency head explains in writing why a workshop is unnecessary.”

“Essentially this tables clear backpacks?” board member Torey Alston, a clear backpack proponent, asked. “Is this what we’re saying, because we need to say that if that’s what we’re saying.”

District officials weren’t ready to say that yet.

A July 25 vote still gives the district enough time, albeit with much less notice to parents, for the clear backpack requirement to take effect for the next school year, which starts Aug. 21, However, board members are facing increasing pressure from the public to drop or postpone the plan, and it’s not clear a majority still firmly supports it.

A school safety town hall scheduled for June 12 at Plantation High is still planned to hear public feedback on clear backpacks as well as two other proposals: school uniforms and the expanded use of metal detectors.

Lynch-Walsh, a parent who chairs several district committees, has opposed the clear backpack requirement. She said it creates privacy concerns, there’s no research to show they are effective at making campuses safer and the School Board failed to seek public input before announcing it.

The School Board first agreed to the requirement in closed-door sessions, which many lawyers and open meetings experts say is a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law.

“As the parent of a rising junior who will be directly affected by a Board decision to create a rule requiring clear backpacks for the 2023-24 school year, I am hereby requesting the District hold a public workshop as required by Florida Statute 120.54 – 2(c),” she wrote in an email Friday to Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff, with other board members and General Counsel Marylin Batista copied on it.

Batista said under the process Lynch-Walsh requested, there must be at least 14 days of public notice for a workshop.

Then after the workshop, the proposed rule must be advertised for 28 more days.

Board members voiced frustration at a Tuesday workshop. Allen Zeman, a vocal proponent of clear backpacks, said he felt like district administrators and lawyers should have foreseen this request. Now he said parents will be scrambling to get backpacks at the last minute if the plan is ultimately approved.

“This law’s been around a long time. Why didn’t we plan for this? I just don’t get it,” Zeman said. “We said we wanted to do this a long time ago. Now we can’t do it on June 13.”

Other board members criticized the district’s decision to alert parents May 5 the backpack requirement was happening, even though it required a public vote.

“I think the way it was rolled out was disingenuous to people and that’s part of the problem,” Board member Debbi Hixon said. “Until we vote on it, it isn’t a yay or nay, and that’s now how it came across.”

Board member Sarah Leonardi, who opposes mandatory clear backpacks, added, “This whole process has been flawed from the beginning. It feels very much like we are shoving this through, and we are being reactive and not thoughtful about this.”