Oak Park and River Forest have a startling challenge with drug and alcohol abuse among our teens — and even our pre-teens. We have become convinced of this over the past 18 months both through our reporting on the issue and by listening to parents, to kids and to the people who work with our kids — social workers, teachers, cops.
More young people in our villages are abusing drugs and alcohol than is typical in other communities. That's what credible surveys of our kids tell us. That's the assessment of trusted professionals. And, anecdotally, that's what our children are telling us when we listen well.
This compelling evidence removes the option of concluding that all kids drink or smoke a little, that this is a small group of kids and they're probably not like my kid anyhow, or that, yes, this is a hell of a problem but it is unsolvable so let's not create a lot of uncomfortable changes trying to change a harsh reality.
This week our public high school will hold a forum for parents to come and talk through the option of "closing the campus" come next fall as one possible approach to limiting access to drugs and alcohol. This would mean that the 3,250 students who enter OPRF in the morning would not be able to leave campus until the day's classes were over.
We're in favor of closing the campus at OPRF. Simply closing it. No range of earned privileges. Good grades, steady attendance and a resume of extracurriculars do not guarantee that a student is drug or alcohol free. That's why this problem is so perplexing. That's why working sincerely to reduce abuse is complex and that every combination of efforts will bring a mixed bag of results.
We are certain that closing the campus is just one strategy among many that will need to be considered. We're also certain that the standard arguments — that lunch on Lake Street is a civil right for a 17-year-old, that the school can't contain the pent-up energy of so many teens, that we're punishing the "good kids" by closing campus — are weak excuses by grownups unwilling to take some heat from teens.
Closing the campus is the simple choice among a range of options still being discussed. There are more profound debates to be had over drug-testing and drug-sniffing dogs. In those topics there are legitimate civil rights issues to be sorted through.
Closing campus is no panacea. That's for sure. And while it is a discreet decision which must be made shortly to allow its implementation by fall, we can only be energized to do more if the seven-member school board leads us forward by taking this step.
We cannot for a moment convince ourselves that any single choice, any single institution, even one as central to this issue as the high school, has the ability to solve this problem. The strength of the past year's intense and clear-eyed discussion has been the realization that we are all players in this drama.
Parents, first and foremost, have to lead by expectation, example and communication in their homes. Students have to reverse the peer pressure and make it acceptable to steer clear of dangers. Social services to address the complicated reasons kids turn to alcohol and drugs must be expanded. Police have to know they will be supported when they are vigilant in upending a distribution network that includes lots of our own kids, even in low-level roles.
Closing campus has, not surprisingly, surfaced as an initial step on what will be a twisting road. We need to take this step now. And then the next. And the next. Day by day.