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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of January 15 - 21, 2003


Beware of
turtleback syndrome

Overloaded backpacks may be
dangerous to childrenís health

Express Staff Writer

Have you ever noticed your child or someone elseís child with that peculiar turtle look? Their shoulders are rounded as they lean forward trying to compensate for the huge backpack that droops down below their waist. Itís filled with heavy textbooks for every subject they take, which can be as many as six, plus a three-ring binder and sundry other items.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the use of book bags or backpacks by school children resulted in over 6,500 injuries in 2000 alone.

Wood River Middle School Principal John Cvetich said he looked at a sixth-grader who was loaded down by his pack recently and asked him, "Are you in training to be a Sherpa?"

The lockers at the middle school are roomy, and because each gradeís classes are in the same hall as their lockers, there is time to stow books and pick them up when needed. But that doesnít mean the lockers arenít full of other things, such as clothes, instruments, sports equipment, change of shoes, coats and lunches. They also still have to take the books home somehow on a daily basis for homework.

"Weíre really working as much as we can on personal organization, but textbooks are bigger," Cvetich said. He added that they use some textbooks less because in many classes there is teacher-supplemented materials.

Also, the middle school now prohibits use of backpacks and other satchels.

"Last year we banned the duffels, or suitcases or sea bags, or hope chests or whatever in the classrooms," Cvetich said. "It got to be such a mess in the halls and was a fire hazard. Students canít carry backpacks, thereís enough time to go to their locker."

Not so, according to many students, in the Wood River High School, where halls are crowded in between classes and lockers arenít necessarily convenient. Construction of the new school, however, should help the crowding issue.

While students complain of trying to get to their lockers, use the facilities and maneuver through crowd halls WRHS Principal Graham Hume said, "They have time if they do it before classes, and pick up books at lunch for afternoon classes."

According to Hume, it would be better to split the load during the day rather than keeping the books together.

This makes sense if the student is highly organized. But it still doesnít erase the problem of the student turtles all meandering their way to and from school carrying what often is 20 to 30 pounds of textbooks.

At least Cvetich and Hume both recognize that the studentsí structural health is a concern, especially in younger and smaller kids who are not fully-grown.

"In terms of the textbooks and how many they have, Iím not sure what the solution is," Hume said.

But the problem is not unique to Blaine County. Back pain complaints prompted a California law to take effect in 2004 that would limit textbook weight. Also, similar bills have been introduced in New Jersey and Massachusetts.

However, some school districts in California have taken things into their own hands already. One solution could be making assignments through the Internet, or e-books or CD-ROMs could be made available. Still, until e-books reach a critical mass, this is a difficult proposition for low-income families. Another idea is to issue a second set of textbooks to keep at home.

"There is no magic low cost solution," said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the American Association of Publishersí School Division. Durability is a major part of the manufacturing standards of textbooks, he added. Textbooks are usually replaced every six to eight years.

He said having a second set of textbooks actually is more cost effective since the replacement of lost or destroyed books is more expensive in the long run.

As to the suggestion of health risks he said, "Some orthopedic surgeons would suggest 15 percent of body weight is the maximum that should be carried in a pack. But there might be a 200-lb. line backer and a 100-lb. cheerleader in the same class. There are so many variables. One size, in this instance, truly does not fit all."

Dr. Scott Bautch, past president of the American Chiropractic Association Council on Occupational Health, said, "In my own practice, I have noticed a marked increase in the number of young children who are complaining about back, neck and shoulder pain. The first question I ask these patients is, 'Do you carry a backpack to school?' Almost always, the answer is 'Yes.'"

Tom West, of Ketchum Chiropractic, said itís very common that kids come to him complaining of pain due to carrying heavy backpacks.

Another chiropractor in Ketchum, Joel Jarolimek, said he also is seeing a number of kids with neck and back problems. "They tell me they donít have time between classes to get to their lockers. We try to advise them. Better backpacks are coming out."

The ACA recommends making sure packs are not oversized since the more room there is, the more students are apt to put in. Weight should be anchored at the waist and should not drop more than four inches below the waist. Straps should be padded so they donít dig in at the shoulders, and parents should monitor the need for the books nightly.

Because of the tendency to bring books home every night, some parents pick their children up at school rather than have them walk home hunched under the weight of a nightís dose of homework.

This may help the kids, but it doesnít help traffic, or ease up on unnecessary car trips.

Another issue parents contend with is the cost of replacing ripped backpacks several times over the course of the school year. Most are simply not made for this kind of weight.

The Blaine County School Board has discussed options to help the situation. In fact, in designing the new high school it tried to provide ample locker space for each student, Superintendent Jim Lewis said.

"The new school is built in a circle. Classes are convenient, and they should easily have access to lockers. It was designed for natural light and efficiency."


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