The District 200 Board of Education got an earful last Wednesday night as its members listened to public comments by parents, neighbors and students about whether to close the OPRF campus.
In two hours of emotional commentary, board members heard a catalog of alleged student misbehaviors that take place outside of school during the 40-minute lunch period, including dealing and consuming drugs and alcohol, engaging in sex, driving recklessly and smoking cigarettes.
Equally emotional appeals to maintain the open campus were brought by students who claimed that drug problems were over-exaggerated and who begged for "a little bit of fresh air" every day.
Three options were on the table, said Dietra Millard, school board president. The first would be to close the campus for all students, not just freshmen, who have been eating lunch on campus in a designated cafeteria since 1998.
The second choice would be a modified closed campus with juniors and seniors allowed to earn the privilege to leave. The third option would maintain an open campus for all students except freshmen.
"This is a highly time-sensitive issue. We must decide by June," said Millard. Almost 70 people attended the meeting in the school's large auditorium.
Diane Fascione, of the 500 block of Woodbine, said her experience as a substitute teacher at both OPRF and Elmwood Park High School (which has a closed campus) had convinced her the "behavioral expectations are higher" in a closed campus. She said closing campus would limit opportunities for student drug use and other misbehavior such as "going to an empty house for sexual relations and cutting their afternoon classes. ... Your students are our children. They are minors in the eyes of the law. If something happens to my child ... the shame and the blame will be on you."
Eric Lupke, a freshman at OPRF, said, "Let students have 45 minutes in the day to go outside and get some fresh air as opposed to locking them in a noisy room with a bunch of other kids who they might not want to be with. The claims of drug dealing during lunch period seem very exaggerated to me. I've never seen an illegal drug in my life. I only have two classes with windows and it's kind of depressing."
Neighbors told of drug deals they have witnessed from living room windows. One woman produced drug paraphernalia (baggies and a pipe) that she found while dog-walking. "We are five blocks from the West Side drug market," said one speaker.
"April 20 was drug day, I guess, and my daughter told me that at least six students were stoned out of their minds in the back of the class, and nothing was done about that," said Dave Biggus from Harvey Avenue. "Drug testing, and closing the campus would at least give the kids a chance to say 'no' and know there were some adults showing the way."
Karen Daniels, mother of an OPRF sophomore, opposed closing the campus because her son "likes to have a break from the noise and craziness. He likes to go to a friend's house and stretch his legs. ... I don't mind a little experimentation," she said, pointing out that learning to make choices during high school is preferable to "being locked up 24/7 until he goes to college."
"We cannot blame the West Side of Chicago for our children getting drugs. There has to be parent accountability," said one woman. "Closed campus will bring about many behavioral problems. It takes away some of the dignity, socially, for some students."
"These are new drivers racing back to get to class," said Lisa Lowry of IMPACT — a local citizens task force addressing student drug-use in Oak Park and River Forest. "Luckily, we are not here because there's been a tragedy."
Describing himself as "part of the problem" when he attended OPRF 40 years ago, Mike Lennox, of the 200 block of N. Ridgeland Ave., said his son is now in the Coast Guard, fighting the drug trade in South and Central America. "He's putting his life on the line for us. ... It is not the same marijuana today as it was 40 years ago. This board has a chance to act to close the campus."
OPRF Student Council President Emily Hendricks said, "I know our school has a reputation as being 'Smoke Park-Reefer Forest', but ... to punish 3,600 hundred kids for the wrongdoing of just a small section of our student body is wrong."
Suggestions thrown out by speakers included shortening lunch periods to 25 minutes, hiring motivational speakers for parents and beefing up programs such as "Snowball" — a three-day retreat where students discuss personal problems underlying their choices to take drugs.
The board will meet again on Thursday, May 19 at 7:30 a.m. to evaluate the suggestions.