School board votes to allow backpacks at Belen Middle School

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The proposed policy not allowing backpacks at Belen Middle School started a controversy that resulted in an hour-plus discussion during Tuesday's Belen Board of Education meeting.

After hearing from the public and BMS Principal Stephanie Armijo, the board nixed the change to the student handbook.

Initially, board member Larry Lindberg made a motion to accept the policy change, saying the board needed to support Armijo's decision. He said the policy allowed her to make exceptions to the policy and allow students who needed backpacks to carry them.

Board member Adrian Pino seconded his motion, but the measure failed on a 2-2 split, with Lindberg and Pino voting for, and Board President Sam Chavez and member Lorraine Espinosa voting no. Board member Lola Quintana was absent from Tuesday's meeting.

With school starting Monday, the board needed to make a decision, so Chavez made a motion to continue allowing backpacks at the school. That motion passed on a 3-1 vote, with Pino voting no.

Parents expressed concerns about where sports equipment for after-school activities would be stored and if it would be secure, that students would not be able to bring home the necessary materials for homework and the possibility of lost or stolen books.

Armijo said the new policy was based on a number of factors. Since the district is switching to the Common Core curriculum, text books will remain in the classroom and students can take one home for the year as well, eliminating the need to take books home.

In addition, is the school-wide implementation of the AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — system. The system centers round a three-ring binder that holds everything a student needs for all classes, Armijo said.

Several parents said the entire policy centered around perceived safety threats at the middle school. Chavez asked Armijo how many times students had been found in possession of weapons.

She said "several." Chavez asked whether that was an automatic suspension. Armijo responded that there was always discipline taken when students brought banned items onto campus.

Armijo said student safety was a part of the decision to remove backpacks, but concerns about weapons and drugs weren't the only safety concerns.

"Rooms are crowded. We have students and staff tripping over them," she said. "Studies have shown that it is detrimental for students to carry heavy loads on their backs."

Espinosa said the issue should have been brought to the board sooner, to allow for parent input..

One of the compromise measures the district tried to anticipate was allowing see-through backpacks. Superintendent Ron Marquez said the district bought about 600 backpacks — half clear vinyl, half of them mesh — to distribute to BMS students if that was the board's direction.

The bags were purchased with part of the $6,000 the most recent film company in Belen paid the district for use of its transportation building for filming.

While the bags won't be distributed to the middle school students, Marquez said they are available if parents want one and for students around the district.

"They won't go to waste," Marquez said.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.