By Terry Dean
Lucas Brandt was looking forward to the prospect of being able to leave Oak Park and River Forest High School's campus for lunch when he becomes a sophomore this fall.
Now that won't happen. Not with the school board's pending vote this week to close the campus during lunch periods beginning with the 2011-12 school year. The board will also consider the option of allowing upper classmen — juniors and/or seniors — to leave campus under certain conditions.
The school board last week reached a consensus to go with either of those routes, but will make it official with a vote at their May 26 regular meeting. They'll also discuss other details, including what they'd like those so-called "earned privileges" to be, and if juniors and seniors, or seniors only, will enjoy them. Freshmen are currently prohibited from leaving campus, though school officials, parents and students all admit some do anyway.
Brandt, 15, says he doesn't. But the freshman was eager to do so once he moved up a grade. He, along with a group of friends sitting on the grass outside the school's Scoville entrance after school last Friday, were not happy with the pending policy change.
"This isn't going to solve the problem of kids using drugs. It's a basic cultural problem. I wish the school would look at that," Brandt said.
The OPRF board has been discussing the closed-campus topic intently this spring though the issue has been talked about in the broader community for over a year now. At their May 19 policy committee meeting, the board decided it was time to make a decision — OPRF's campus will be closed to more students than before. Among students, word spread quickly of the board's stance. They began commenting on Facebook last Thursday, and by Friday the buzz was percolating in the building.
Closing the campus, along with drug-sniffing dogs and student drug testing, have been supported by some parents as a way to combat drug activity at OPRF. Supporters of closing the campus readily admit it won't stop kids from using. But they do believe it will curtail students' access to drugs and alcohol during the school day.
OPRF freshman Gordon Brinkman, though, doesn't believe it will.
"If kids want to do it, they'll find a way to do it. This isn't going to stop them," the 14-year-old said.
"Kids will still do drugs. They'll find a way to sneak it in," Brinkman added, recalling that he knows of students who bring vodka in water bottles and marijuana-laced brownies to school for lunch.
The school's decision won't impact 17-year-old Naomi Forson, a graduating senior. She's also a foreign-exchange student, arriving from Africa last August — she'll be returning home next month. Forson and her friends eat off campus, usually at Tasty Dog on Lake Street at Euclid Avenue, a couple of blocks west of school. She also knows some kids who go home to eat during lunchtime.
Forson doesn't think closing the campus will greatly impact student drug use. One of the arguments from open-campus supporters is that students need a chance to go outside during the day to get fresh air. Forson agrees. "Not everyone wants to stay in school," she said. "The way the lunchroom is, it feels crowded. Some people don't want to eat in there."
Sarah Feldman, an OPRF sophomore, goes off campus and eats at Ridgeland Common, the park just east of the school on Lake Street. She doesn't like the school's decision, calling it a "knee-jerk" reaction.
"They should go directly to the problem. Find out why kids are using drugs and drinking. This is not a solution to that problem," Feldman, 16, said.
Brinkman also thinks closing the campus will negatively impact restaurants around the school that students like to go to, such as Tasty Dog.
"It's definitely going to cut into their profits," he said.
Rob Barton, co-owner of Tasty Dog told Wednesday Journal this week that any impact on his restaurant will be felt during the winter season. Students still mostly come during that time, he said, while adults are the ones who tend to stay indoors. He estimates that students represent 25 to 35 percent of the restaurant's overall sales. Barton also hasn't seen or experienced any problems with students during lunchtime.
"The come in, eat and then go back to school," he said. "By the time they order their food and sit down and eat, it's time for them to go back.
"I don't see the problems other people are talking about," he added, referencing the complaints neighbors and parents have made about students' behavior off-campus during their lunch break. "I think there are probably more problems after school than during lunchtime. Generally, the kids are pretty good."