Exchange Bulletproof Backpacks

Joe Leggett looks at the portable armored panel in the backpack of his son, Cameron Leggett, at their home Wednesday, Feb 28, 2018, in Papillion, Neb. Leggett bought the 9-inch-by-12-inch inserts from a Sarpy County security firm and says the $120 panels give his kids a protective edge if a school shooting ever occurs. Sales of the panels have risen at the local store and nationally since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. (Rebecca Gratz/Omaha World-Herald via AP) 

Parents of public school students in New Orleans may soon be able to send their children to school wearing so-called bulletproof backpacks.

On Tuesday, an Orleans Parish School Board committee gave approval to allowing the optional school gear, following action earlier this year by the Legislature that made the items legal.

Kathy Moss, the school district's attorney, said the board isn't required to pass the policy amendment, but the district would like to give families in New Orleans the option.

"Student safety is of the utmost importance," Moss said. "If that's an option parents believe they'd like to provide for their child, then we're just trying to give clarity in our policy to allow it."

The recommendation will go before the full, seven-member board on Thursday, and the proposal appears to have enough votes to pass.

Before Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the act into law, bulletproof backpacks were banned in Louisiana. In the early 1990s, schools were designated as gun-free zones, and state law prevented students or staff members from wearing body armor.

The law now has an exception to the body-armor ban, allowing backpacks with either a metal insert or whole panels constructed with a material used in bulletproof vests, called Kevlar fiber.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Mike Walsworth, a Republican from West Monroe. During debate on the measure, Walsworth said he was reacting to the Valentine's Day massacre of 17 students and staff members at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

The Parkland gunman used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, sparking a nationwide debate about stricter gun control laws and the role of heightened security in public schools.

"It does at least give our children some kind of protection," Walsworth said before his bill was passed. "Our kids need to know there is some way to protect themselves."

Other school districts in Louisiana have passed rules allowing the backpacks. The school board in West Feliciana Parish, for example, passed a similar measure in August.

Other local officials have said they support the change, though it did meet some resistance, including from a representative of the Jefferson Parish School Board.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans, was one of two senators who voted against the bill in the Legislature, saying that the backpacks, which run anywhere from $50 to $400, might be unaffordable for many families.

He also said they aren't equivalent to "a Captain America shield."

"You are not going to run out there blocking bullets with a good outcome," he said at the time, according to WWL-TV.

Louisiana isn't the only state to have passed a law allowing the backpacks, and they've become available in stores and online from companies like Bullet Blocker and Guard Dog Security.

The companies say the material can hold off bullets from handguns and shotguns. However, the Ballistic Armor Research Group has said such backpacks won't protect against the assault-style weapons often used in mass shootings.

And the U.S. Department of Justice has said that its research agency, the National Institute of Justice, hasn't tested any of the brands, because it certifies body armor only for law enforcement.

Officials warned against being misled by companies that promise such backpacks meet federal standards.

"Marketing that claims NIJ testing or certification for such products is false," Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said earlier this year.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.