Shawn Johnson’s friends can see everything in his backpack as the 16-year-old navigates the hallways at his high school.

Johnson doesn’t mind, he even encourages it by wearing a backpack made of clear plastic.

“You can tell a lot about a person by what is in their backpack,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I use it to let people know what mood I’m in.”

The covers of his favorite rap CDs show through the plastic. So does his science book—covered with a magazine photo of bikini-clad model Elizabeth Hurley embracing a boa constrictor.

When Johnson has a hot date, he signals his friends by displaying a pair of his red briefs.

It isn’t what school officials had in mind when some districts started requiring students to tote clear backpacks. They were trying to keep students from bringing weapons to school, in the wake of numerous school shootings nationwide, and to make searching the bags easier.

But school officials also created a business opportunity for a start-up Houston company.

Dale Jeffery was a 33-year-old MBA working at a Houston import-export firm when he read an ad that a Georgia school had placed in a magazine. The school was looking for clear backpacks.

Jeffery holds an undergraduate degree in Asian studies from Brigham Young University and an MBA from Thunderbird, an Arizona-based graduate school specializing in international business. He contacted friends in China, who agreed to made 20 prototypes for $3,000, which was about all that Jeffery could spare from his modest savings.

Suddenly, he was in business.

Now, as president of Seethru Backpacks Co. and SeethruBackpacks.com., Jeffery is one of a handful of makers of the clear backpacks, which he supplies to schools in almost every state. Demand is particularly strong in Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, East Texas, and along the Mexican border.

The bags sell wholesale for $8 to $12 and cost $14.95 to $24.95 at stores including Wal-Mart and Old Navy. He also sells directly to school districts.

Jeffery said that when he started in spring 1999, about 40 schools mandated clear backpacks. That number had jumped to about 4,000 by the start of this school year.

He named the backpack designs after Greek gods, mythological figures, and Caribbean islands. “I wanted something that would appeal to kids,” he said. “Something strong and interesting.”

The Jupiter is a large rollaway backpack for heavy loads. The Alpha is streamlined for crowded hallways. The Europa padded bag protects lunches and cameras. The Aruba is a book tote for teachers.

Debaters can use the Socrates as a document bag. Choir robes and band uniforms can be hung in the Atlas garment bag. The Saturn has colorful piping in school colors. The Aries is a see-through gym bag. The Mercury is a single strap messenger bag, designed for schools that have banned all backpacks.

Not all students love the bags, however. Anita Cruz think they’re ugly.

“I’m not trying to hide anything, and a person has to have a little privacy,” the 15-year-old said. “I don’t want everyone in the world to see what I’ve got. It’s totally stupid. I’m not going to bring a gun.”

But some students like the look. Andrew Coleman, a sophomore at Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas, bought one even though his school doesn’t require them.

“My friends and I just got them because we think they are cool,” Coleman said. “It’s also pretty handy to know if you have your math folder without rummaging through your backpack.”

Marva Rasberry, a principal at Stafford Middle School in Stafford, favors the clear-backpack policy.

“We’re not that concerned about weapons in school among our students,” Rasberry said. “But it’s the daily distractions such as cell phones and squirt guns and GameBoys that we’re dealing with. … Not to mention the Pokemon cards.”

Tom Pierson, assistant police chief for the Pasadena Independent School District in suburban Houston, said the backpacks are clearly good from a police point of view.

“We can’t see everything in a backpack, but it gives us some idea what is inside,” he said.

The Houston Independent School District credits steps such as metal detectors, cameras, uniforms, and clear backpacks with reducing violent crime in schools by 30 percent in the past two years.

“It seems fairly popular among the parents,” said district spokesman Terry Abbott. “I think it gives them one more reason to believe everything is being done to keep schools safe.” n

Links:

Seethru Backpacks Co., 13003 Murphy Road, Suite N-2, Stafford, Texas 77477; phone (877) 995-PACK, fax (281) 933-2610, web http://www.seethrubackpacks.com.