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By Megan Dooley
As the Oak Park and River Forest High School administration pursues potential changes to school policies designed to combat drug and alcohol abuse issues, the high school hosted a discussion Feb. 15, asking parents and other community members to weigh in on the options.
Dozens of people crowded into the school cafeteria to discuss the pros and cons of implementing new policies to quell substance abuse, a problem studies have shown is more common at OPRF than at other area schools. The topics included modifying the school's open campus policy, hiring a permanent student assistant program (SAP) coordinator, instituting mandatory random drug testing, and allowing police dogs to perform drug searches within the school.
Inviting the public to express their opinions, explained Principal Nathaniel Rouse, is nothing new for the high school.
"How we got to this point tonight is based on a history of engaging the community on topics of drugs and alcohol," he said.
Organizers of the event emphasized a desire to surface wide ranging views on the proposals. To this point the discussion has been driven by a Citizens Council parent committee, and most participants in various forums have been sympathetic to proposed interventions.
"This is really a problem," said Rouse, of substance abuse among students. Based on a survey taken by OPRF students in May of last year, significant numbers of kids reported alcohol and marijuana abuse, drinking and using drugs on school property, and attending classes under the influence.
"I think when you hear these numbers you do realize that we do have a serious issue." Rouse said.
The four topics discussed last week targeted school policies that some felt are feeble in thwarting substance abuse. After brief presentations for each topic, attendees split into smaller groups to discuss each topic individually. The closed campus one prompted a great deal of conversation with positions on either side of the argument. Currently the campus is closed only for freshmen.
"What's the benefit to an open campus? Education-wise, what's the benefit?" asked Vicky Rohner.
Another participant said that there is no benefit to such a policy.
"I think it's a distraction," she said, while another person pointed out: "I think it's a big interruption in your day."
Others, however, disagreed.
"I think it should stay open," said one parent. "It's not really going to help any of the issues that we're talking about [to close the campus]."
In response to one parent's story about her daughter's classmate who's known to smoke pot before attending class, another parent argued: "This student needs much more help than a closed campus is going to get him."
The administration also suggested discussing potential modifications to the program. For instance, allowing only upperclassmen to take advantage of an open campus, or making the policy a privilege earned by good grades and performance.
But one parent insisted that the school already has difficulty keeping track of which students take advantage of an open campus. "The enforcement is the issue right now," she said. "All freshmen go off campus. I think it should be closed because I do think that the kids leave campus and smoke pot and drink."
One woman, who was in favor of an open campus policy that allowed only qualified students the privilege of leaving school, suggested improving enforcement. She recommended limiting the entry and exit points in the building to a single door. Also: requiring students to wear color-coded identification so staff and administrators can easily distinguish between students who are allowed to leave and those who aren't.
Others rejected outright the idea of keeping an open campus system. "The kids who want to do well in school are distracted by this," one woman said.