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Posted on March 2, 2009 - Filed Under Bullet Proof |

Out and scout discrimination

Should children be forced to swear that they will do their “duty to God” before they are allowed to be scouts? And should adults be banned from being scout leaders if they do not believe in God?

No, say the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association. Their plea to make the reference to God in the 100-year-old oath voluntary, not compulsory, has been turned down by the Scout Association, so they have taken their case to Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission on Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).

“It’s dreadful to bar young people because of their beliefs,” says the National Secular Society’s general secretary, Keith Porteous Wood. He suggests it could place atheist parents in an intolerable position, unwilling to see their children swear an untruthful oath, but unwilling to stop them joining the scouts.

The Scout Association defends the oath to God. Its spokesman, Simon Carter, says: “If a young person does not believe in God, there are other organisations he or she can join.” Such as the Woodcraft Folk? “No, I don’t mean Woodcraft, I mean local authority youth clubs.” However, Kirsty Palmer, general secretary of the Woodcraft Folk, says: “People who take a different view are welcome to join us. We pride ourselves on being open to people of all faiths and of no faith.”

As for adults, Carter confirms that anyone wishing to be a scout leader has to sign a form saying they believe in God. There is provision for non-Christian faiths - Muslims can say they believe in Allah - but none for atheists.

“We believe there should be a spirituality in the lives of young people, and that parents want that,” says Carter. But can’t a person have spirituality without God? “Not in the sense we mean spirituality.”

Wood says: “We are saddened that the Scout Association has chosen to practise discrimination in relation to religion or belief.” Two-thirds of 12- to 19-year-olds define themselves as non-religious, according to a 2005 report for the then Department for Education and Skills. Wood has complained to the CEHR that the Scout Association is guilty of discrimination.

Some of Wood’s critics say he is taking it too seriously. People should just join, and not worry about the oath. But Carter condemns that suggestion. “All the young people I see take it honestly,” he says.

It makes a nonsense of the slogan “Scouting for all,” says Wood, and of the claim that scouting is inclusive, and he questions public subsidy for their activities (£1.5m to celebrate their centenary last year). But only out-and-out atheists are banned, says Carter. “If you are searching, if you are not sure, if you are looking for faith, that’s fine. And even atheists can support the aims of the association as associate members.” But he agrees that associate members cannot be Beaver Scouts, Cub Scouts, Scouts, Explorer Scouts, members of the Scout Network, or Scout Leaders.

Francis Beckett

Bulletproof bag

“When my kids were younger I wouldn’t let them ride their bicycles without a helmet,” says Mike Pelonzi, co-inventor of the bulletproof backpack. “This is the same thing.”

The aftermath of the Columbine shootings prompted Massachusetts-based Pelonzi and his business partner, Joe Curran, both firearms instructors, to start work on their shield. “My children and my partner’s children started doing ‘lockdown drills’ in school,” says Pelonzi referring to drills schools do to prepare for an armed attack. While other parents campaigned for tighter gun controls on hearing such shocking news, the two fathers chose a more direct measure.

“All they were doing was locking the doors, turning all the lights out, lining the kids up against one wall and waiting for the police to arrive. They had no other means of defence, so we tried to figure out if we could give them something.”

Their company, MJ Safety Solutions, launched the $175 My Child’s Pack in four colours at the beginning of this school year, and have shifted about 2,000 since (mostly in the US, but also as far afield as Argentina, Finland and Canada). The majority go to schoolchildren, but commuters have also started to buy into something Pelonzi and Curran call “defensive action”.

The backpack features a lightweight bulletproof panel that they claim stops 97% of ammunition used in school shootings, even multiple shots from various weapons. The non-metallic material weighs about 500 grams. Or style-conscious kids and parents can just buy a sheet that slides into most bags.

The idea is that a child could move the backpack around to cover his or her torso while being fired on, and get some protection across roughly same region as a police vest. Some, however, are sceptical about whether it would work in a real-life situation.

Scott Poland, a psychologist who specialises in crisis response for the National Association of School Psychologists, told the New York Times he thought the idea ridiculous, adding “do you know how fast a bullet travels?”

Pelonzi denies his product is designed merely to feed the paranoia of parents, and doesn’t think tougher gun laws are required. “I have all the confidence in the world,” he says, “that we will save a life one day.”

Many parents and teachers apparently share his view. Co-inventor Curran sums up the safety-first feelings of many: “I don’t care what you do. If you want to fix the world’s hurts, I can’t help you. But my kid’s going to be safe now because he’s carrying the backpack.”


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