Crayons, glue, pencils, bullet-resistant backpack.
For some parents, that’s what a back-to-school shopping list looks like this year.
Guard Dog Security’s ProShield Scout backpacks are stocked for back-to-school season at Office Max and Office Depot stores and on the retailers’ website. Signs on the display say, “protection in session” and “bullet resistant backpack.” The office supply stores are not alone. Homedepot.com and other retailers also sell the brand.
“The backpack has been a popular item,” Yasir Sheikh, president and founder of Skyline USA, the company that makes Guard Dog Security products said in an interview. “We have sold out a few times this year.”
In recent years, there has been an increase in bullet-resistant consumer products coinciding with the rise in shootings at schools and other public places. A photo posted on Facebook of the ProShield Scout backpack taken at an Office Max store in Tennessee with the caption “saw this at Office Max today and my heart literally broke into pieces” had gone viral days before 31 people were killed in two separate mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. The post captures the mixed emotions that can be attached to such products.
Amanda Deacon, a mother of an 8- and 4-year-old from Brigantine, New Jersey, quickly told CNBC that she would purchase such a product for her children.
“Yes, I would. Why not?” she said.
But others questioned whether it would be effective, asking whether it would provide sufficient protection.
“I’m not sure it would do much good, but I can see the marketing reason for it,” said Jeff Scheidler, who is originally from Gilroy, California, where a shooting at a garlic festival killed three and injured 12, on July 28. Scheidler now lives in St. Louis with his wife and 12-year-old twins.
His wife, Heidi, also had doubts about its ability to fully protect a child, but said, “But will I feel like a bad parent without them for my kids?”
A first for back-to-school
Skyline USA’s Sheikh said he started his company in 2013 in response to the demand for public and school safety items. Skyline sells other personal protection products like pepper sprays and stun guns.
“It’s about creating a practical daily backpack that could potentially be lifesaving as well,” said Sheikh, a Florida native, who said the Parkland school shooting in February 2018 hit home. He explained, whatever he can do to give back and protect communities, he wants to do it.
While the ProShield Scout isn’t the first bullet-resistant backpack Guard Dog Security has made, it is the first model the company has targeted for back-to-school shoppers, and the first year this model has been sold. Its other backpacks are geared more towards adult travelers or professionals.
“The backpack is a very practical backpack, it’s not meant to look like you are going to war,” Sheikh said.
Another company, Bullet Blocker, has been selling what it categorizes as bulletproof backpacks and personal security and protection items for more than a decade. Its products are sold at independent specialty retailers and on its own website.
“Our sales of our backpacks and inserts have increased approximately 200% over the past few years,” Bullet Blocker founder Joe Curran said. “During the back-to-school season, we sell many of our products to parents, teachers and college students.”
Curran started Bullet Blocker in 2007 following the Virginia Tech shooting using his knowledge and experience as a U.S. Army ranger, deputy sheriff and firearms instructor. Bullet Blocker backpacks start at $160, with inserts starting at $99. The products are made in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Curran cautions shoppers that all ballistics have a five-year expiration date. He does not sell to national retailers because he is concerned about his products sitting in inventory for long periods of time, which he said, compromises the quality.
The ProShield Scout backpacks are manufactured in China and sell for between $99 and $119, weighing just about one pound more than a regular backpack.
Both companies said the backpacks are tested against the standards for the National Institute of Justice and are rated level IIIA.
Sheikh explained that level IIIA means the backpack ballistics can stop a 9-millimeter handgun and .44 magnum with zero penetration, shot five times in testing. The report is included with his backpack.
Curran said IIIA is the highest level for soft body armor. He said there are higher levels for very heavy and hard plates.
But buyer beware. The backpacks may be tested against the standards of the National Institute of Justice, but the government agency itself does not certify or test ballistic-resistant backpacks. The standards are used at independent testing facilities.
“The National Institute of Justice — the research, development, and evaluation agency of the Department of Justice — has never tested nor certified ballistic items, such as backpacks, blankets, or briefcases,” according to public affairs specialist Kelly Laco at the Justice Department. The only products it does certify in this category are body armor for law enforcement. “Marketing that claims NIJ testing or certification for such products is false.”
Further, many school shooters have used AR-15 rifles, which neither the Guard Dog nor the Bullet Blocker backpacks are marketed to protect against.
Former New York City Police Department Commissioner and current Teneo Chairman William Bratton said he would warn parents about the effectiveness of these backpacks against firearms.
“These backpacks would not, under any circumstances stand up against the assault rifles so often used in school shootings,” he said.
Still, Bratton said if the backpack gives parents’ psychological relief as a way to protect the child, and they can afford the cost, it could be a good thing.
“But you have to be careful about raising the fear level of the kids.” Bratton also advises a child may not hold the backpack in a way that is most protective in the stress of an active shooter situation.
And there is also the possibility that children wouldn’t be allowed to have the backpack with them in the classroom.
A couple from North Carolina, who declined to give their names, said the school district their two elementary age boys go to doesn’t allow the children to carry their backpacks into the classroom. Bags have to stay in the lockers, for safety reasons.
Still, the North Carolina father wearing an American flag hat and carrying his own backpack was quick with his assessment. “It’s a false sense of security. It’s a waste of money” he said. “If a bullet has your name on it, it doesn’t matter.”
Office Max Office Depot and Home Depot declined to comment on sales or demand for the backpacks mentioned in this story.