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Lockers Are on the Wane as Icon of U.S. Schools

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Spurred by budgetary and security woes, a smattering of schools across the country are doing away with one of the inveterate accessories of secondary education: the locker.

Although lockers are a convenient place for students to store cumbersome books and extra clothing, school officials say, they are also easily broken, frequently vandalized, and expensive to maintain.

Lockers contribute to a host of instructional distractions, such as class tardiness, and take up valuable space. Moreover, they are a potential hiding place for guns and drugs.

Over the past decade, lockers in several states, notably California and Washington State, have been on the wane. In some places, such as San Diego, they are virtually obsolete.

Doing away with lockers has its disadvantages. Schools must either buy classroom sets of textbooks, reducing some of the savings, or ask students to lug around half a dozen or more heavy volumes all day.

Cost of Upkeep

Nevertheless, Jodie Bruhn, who has fashioned three San Diego schools into locker-free establishments, has no regrets.

Currently the principal of Stanley Junior High School, Ms. Bruhn took the aging structures at that school out of commission this school year by running wire through the handles and using them for inactive storage.

"The cost of upkeep is a real major thing,'' she observed.

The maintenance department for the San Diego school system used to fix broken lockers, noted J.C. Broadhead, a building-services supervisor at Bell Junior High School, where Ms. Bruhn eliminated lockers six years ago. The district stopped repairing them after recent budget cutbacks, however, forcing schools to pay for parts and repairs out of their own budgets.

Like many schools that have eliminated lockers for general purposes, Bell Junior High has kept them for gym classes. But even with relatively few lockers to maintain, Mr. Broadhead said, schools are conducting "no repairs whatsoever.''

"The boys' P.E. area is a disaster,'' he added.

Schools have also had to contend with vandalism, a factor that could explain why schools on the West Coast have been predominantly responsible for the trend away from lockers. Many warmer-climate schools feature outdoor storage units, which are vulnerable to weekend hooligans.

"If I could afford lockers, I wouldn't have a problem with them,'' said Michael Lorch, the principal of the nearly lockerless Kearny High School in San Diego. "But with the cost of maintenance, and with the lockers outside, it's impossible.''

Mr. Lorch estimated that some $2,000 worth of books were stolen from lockers every semester when he was the principal of Correia Junior High School. He finally had to come in over the summer and board up the structures with sheets of plywood, which were later painted with murals.

Behavior Problems

Some schools have been able to use the money that would have been spent to build or maintain lockers to purchase new materials for the classroom.

Cedar Heights Junior High School in Kent, Wash., which opened last fall with no lockers, was designed as a model school that would rely less on standard textbooks and more on innovative software and other teaching tools. As a result, administrators decided that storage capacity was not a top priority.

Building lockers would have cost $20,000, said Judy Parker, a spokeswoman for the Kent school district. "We questioned the need,'' she said.

Another school in suburban Seattle, Inglewood Junior High School in Redmond, Wash., opened in 1991 without lockers. So that students would not have to wear themselves out carrying books around, the school used its construction savings to buy classroom sets of textbooks.

The books cost the school more than $50,000, said Dan Youmans, a spokesman for the district.

But, he added, "in the long run, there's a lot less wear and tear on books.''

Dropping lockers also can help open up much-needed space for other purposes. Kilo Junior High School in Auburn, Wash., junked its lockers last month in response to state funding regulations that encourage maximizing existing building space.

Aside from the savings on upkeep, Ms. Bruhn said, the change also cuts down on tardiness and other problems.

"So many behavior problems happen around the lockers,'' said Ms. Bruhn, echoing many school officials who cited the congregation of large numbers of students in small rooms or congested hallways as a major concern.

Not having lockers also makes students more accountable for their belongings.

School officials acknowledged that students can still bring weapons or drugs to school in their backpacks.

"But it makes them more personally responsible,'' Mr. Youmans said. "They can't say, 'It wasn't mine.'''

Exploring Alternatives

Still, lockers are not about to disappear altogether from the schools. And many schools are devising innovative ways of coping with the problems posed by lockers without doing away with them completely.

In Indianapolis, for example, a security program includes periodic locker searches by narcotics-sniffing dogs, which authorities say answers the safety issue.

Similarly, the District of Columbia school board last month approved a resolution warning students of possible random, unannounced locker searches.

To cut down on hallway congestion and class tardiness, some Memphis schools have placed restrictions on locker visits.

In the face of budgetary constraints, one school in the affluent La Jolla, Calif., district has adopted a system under which students lease their lockers for $10 a year. In addition, a private foundation connected to the high school recently raised the money needed to replace worn-out lockers.

But those who have relinquished the locker as a relic of an earlier era of secondary education seem to have nothing but praise for the decision.

"It's really been the best move I have ever made as an administrator,'' Ms. Bruhn said.

As for the students who are literally shouldering the burden, she added, "Those who had [lockers] before mind; those who never had them before don't know the difference.''

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