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CMS delays rollout of clear backpacks after last-minute discovery of chemical warning tags

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Monday delayed the distribution of clear backpacks after discovering warnings that they could contain hazardous chemicals. The clear bags are intended as a safety measure to prevent guns from getting into schools.

CMS ordered 46,000 of the clear book bags, at a cost of $442,000, after a surge of guns on campus during the first semester. They’ve been in a district warehouse since early February.

A notice sent to principals and families Monday afternoon says it was only when CMS was preparing to distribute them to two pilot schools that staff found warning tags required by California’s Proposition 65. That measure requires businesses to notify California residents about chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.

The notice says CMS is contacting the manufacturer and will not distribute the bags "until this matter is resolved.”

In a March 2020 article, the New York Times noted that Proposition 65 passed more than 30 years ago, but the tags became more common after new regulations came out in 2018. The warning labels apply only in California, but with the prevalence of internet sales more companies are adding the labels.

The writer, Ganda Suthivarakom, says the labels are not necessarily a sign of danger.

"The Prop 65 label is like a noisy alarm that rings equally loudly about smaller amounts of low-risk substances and huge amounts of potentially harmful chemicals," she wrote. "The labels don’t say how much of the chemical is present, or how much it would really take to make a person sick. You could get the same alarming label on potato chips (acrylamide), chemotherapy (uracil mustard), lumber (wood dust), or toxic runoff (arsenic)."

CMS had initially said all high school students would get the bags at no charge and be required to use them. Earlier this month, faced with skepticism and questions from educators and students, Superintendent Earnest Winston said Hopewell High and Cochrane Collegiate Academy would act as pilot schools to see how they worked.

Here's the notice sent to principals and families:

In unloading clear backpacks for distribution at the two pilot schools, we discovered most backpacks contained a warning tag required by Proposition 65 for California residents. We immediately paused the rollout of this safety measure when it was revealed the majority of the inventory had the tag.

In an abundance of caution, we will not proceed with clear backpack distribution until this matter is resolved. We are contacting the manufacturer and proceeding with reclaiming any backpacks that were provided to students in advance of school distribution.

We continue to make informed decisions for the safety and well-being of CMS students.

This week, we will complete the installation of and training for the Evolv security scanners at all seven Phase I high schools. Our plans are focused on layers of actions and initiatives to protect our students and staff, including the ongoing community safety conversations, hiring of additional campus security associates and the launch of the anonymous Say Something system.

Thank you for supporting our work to create a safe environment where students can learn and thrive.

Eve White
Executive Director of Communications
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

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Updated: March 29, 2022 at 9:10 AM EDT
Updated with background on Proposition 65.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.