Textbooks giving students pains

Legislation aims to lighten students’ loads

By:Beth Kressel
   The Taylor twins stand straight and tall until asked to demonstrate a backpack’s effect on their posture. Then both Susan and Lizzy, 11, hunch their backs and bend their arms as if to grip straining shoulder straps.
   "Their feet, their ankles and their shoulders hurt," said their mom Kathy Taylor as she stood outside the Manville Public Library with her daughters, who will enter sixth-grade in the fall.
   "They get very cranky. I know in fifth-grade the books get very heavy, it’s not just worksheet papers anymore but heavy texts," she said.
   Thomas Bozack, a South Main Street chiropractor, says heavy knapsacks can cause injuries, especially in the fourth or fifth grades when children start receiving heavier textbooks from their teachers.
   "Just-maturing muscles are flexible and can create scoliosis which is a curvature of the spine. It’s a weight factor," he said. "Some kids carry their whole locker around with them which should be considered."
   And that’s why its important to learn how to pack, lift and carry heavy knapsacks — not just during August, which is backpack safety month — but all year round.
   "Generally the key is to make what kids are carrying as balanced as possible," he said.
   And if a student uses a rolling backpack, he should make sure to pull equally with his right and left arms, to make sure not to strain one side of the body, the doctor said.
   One New Jersey assemblyman has made a personal mission of lightening student loads. Peter Barnes, D-Middlesex, introduced a bill last fall that would have required the state Board of Education to set weight limits on student textbooks. Similar legislation in California became law September 2002. By July 1, 2004, California’s Board of Education must set weight limits for all textbooks used at public schools.
   Assemblyman Barnes claims that student and parent support was tempered by the arguments of textbook publishers, and he was forced to alter the bill to increase its chance of passage. His new proposal would require New Jersey’s Department of Education to create a backpack safety curriculum that school districts could teach as part of their health and physical education classes.
   "Quite honestly," he said, "people say it’s a silly bill, but if you talk to the kids they don’t think it’s silly at all."
   There are more injuries to students from carrying backpacks than there are in high school athletics. In 1999, more than 3,400 children between 5 and 14 years old sought hospital emergency room treatment for book bag related injuries.
   By the end of high school, students have lifted the equivalent of six automobiles during their entire school tenure. These are just some of the statistics that Assemblyman Barnes quotes to support his proposed legislation.
   Ema Ykobchuk, 16, a junior at Manville High School, knows about backpack pains.
   "My locker is far from my classes so it’s hard to get their in-between," she said. "My bags get heavy and my back starts to hurt."
   Some students, like Ema’s sister Lyutsiya, 13, adopted policies that make book toting a non-issue.
   "I usually do all my homework in school," she said. "I carry my books in my arms and rarely need to bring anything home with me."