Back-to-school dangers: Kids' backpacks pose threat to personal safety

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Amid the excitement of getting back to school, safety experts are warning parents that personalized backpacks could make children an easy target for predators. 

Retired Miami Beach Detective Sgt. Joe Matthews, told Fox News that when a child’s name is on his or her backpack, predators could make the child think they are not a stranger, by calling the child’s name.

“Half the battle of a predator trying to initiate contact with a child is to break that barrier,” Matthews told Fox News. “The most obvious is the unnoticed and [children] forget about their name being on their backpack.”

“Why make it so easy?” he added.

Safety expert David Nance told Fox News in an email that more than anything else, people in general are also likely to respond when someone calls their name.

Some alternatives to backpacks with names on them include key chains, labeling on the inside of the bag, color coding or personalizing with symbols.
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“Even when a complete stranger says our name in public, we can’t help but to stop and look at them and wonder, even for a split second, if they are referring to us,” Nance said. “Sometimes that is all it takes.”

“Personalizing kids’ backpacks could be very dangerous and should be avoided,” Nance added. 

Donna Rice Hughes, the president and CEO of Enough Is Enough, a non-profit organization seeking to maximize internet safety for kids and prevent online exploitation, agreed, previously telling Fox News that a child could drop their guard if a person knows their name.

“A child is so innocent and vulnerable, I just don’t see any logic in announcing [their name].”

“Predators prey where kids play,” Hughes said. “They work offline and online. You don’t want to give predators an entry point to your child.”

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), many attempted abductions involved children between the ages of 10 and 14 and happened when the child was traveling to or from school. During those times, children are also likely to be wearing or carrying their backpacks.

The New York Department of State’s Division of Consumer Protection also warns parents against labeling their children’s items where people can see it. 

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), many attempted abductions have happened when the child was traveling to or from school, which is also a time when children are likely to be wearing their backpacks.
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“Only label books, backpacks and lunches with your child’s full name and any other information on the inside,” the state website says. “Using initials on the outside is okay, but names, even just first names, on the outside can create an unsafe situation for your child.”

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Fox News reached out to Pottery Barn and L.L. Bean — two popular retailers which sell personalized backpacks – for comments on this issue. Neither brand responded by the time of publication. 

Australia-based retailer Jordbarn, which makes products for children, recommends against personalized backpacks on its website. 

“Even when a complete stranger says our name in public, we can’t help but to stop and look at them and wonder, even for a split second, if they are referring to us. Sometimes that is all it takes.”

For parents who want to make sure their child’s backpack can be differentiated from other children’s bags at school, Jordbarn recommended using a key chain attached to the bag, instead. 

Verywell Family also recommends labeling items on the inside of bags or coats in places that cannot be easily removed. The website also suggested color-coding backpacks or using a child’s initials or a unique symbol like a star or heart, rather than a name or other personal information.  

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Matthews told Fox he doesn’t even like when children’s names are on their t-shirts or hats. However, he said that backpacks make children “even more vulnerable” because they wear them on their backs and they forget their name is on it. 

“A child is so innocent and vulnerable, I just don’t see any logic in announcing [their name],” Matthews said. 

Retired Miami Beach Detective Sgt. Joe Matthews, told Fox News that when a child’s name is on his or her backpack, predators could make the child think they are not a stranger, by calling the child’s name.
(iStock)

Nance told Fox that aside from using a child’s name, there are two “common distraction techniques” that predators use to make contact with potential targets including asking the target for the correct time, or asking the target for directions.

Because people generally want to help others, those questions cause people to “stop and turn towards and possibly even move towards the person asking.”

“Meanwhile, that person’s goal is to get closer to their target,” Nance said. “These techniques make it much easier to accomplish.”

According to the NCMEC, predators also use numerous other tricks to lure children including offering candy or toys to children, using a cute animal to get a child to follow them or complimenting a child and asking to take his or her picture. 

“Kids are so vulnerable,” Matthews told Fox. “I believe in being a little paranoid. I believe in being overprotective.”

“You have one chance of making a mistake,” Matthews added. “And that mistake could cost your child’s life. And your own life, with the kind of life you are going to have after that. So let them get upset with you, who cares.”

However, Matthews did add that having a good relationship with your children is a key part of keeping them safe. 

He said: “The most important thing in life in a relationship between a parent and their child, more than anything, is communication, real communication.”

Fox News’ Andrew Murray contributed to this report.

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