By Terry Dean
Oak Park and River Forest High School says it is definitely not OK for any student to smoke on campus.
It's when some students are off campus that things get a little fuzzy, school officials admit.
OPRF's Student Handbook is being updated this summer, as it usually is this time of year. A tweak in the book's student behavior and responsibilities section says that students who choose to smoke must do so "off school grounds." According to the previous wording, it was "at least two blocks away from the school." That language has been in the handbook for a number of years.
The seemingly minor rewording stirred a not-so-minor debate at a recent school board meeting.
The District 200 Board of Education, which governs OPRF, approved this summer's revisions to the handbook on June 26. The smoking change is under the handbook's "Guidelines for Behaviors in Specific Areas" with respect to the East Avenue Mall, where some seniors and juniors who leave campus for lunch congregate. The change was initiated by school administration.
The board did some additional wordsmithing by adding the phrase "students who are of-age" must smoke off campus. In Illinois, the legal age to smoke is 18 years old. The board, though, left it to the administration to insert the appropriate legal age under the law.
Board member Sharon Patchak-Layman questioned whether the school is sending a mixed message about students and smoking.
"I'm confused about how we make the delineation on that, where we say that students who smoke should do so off school grounds, but yet we have a Code of Conduct that gives consequences for it, but that we also expand it to be on the way to and from school."
Tobacco use or possession for a first offense results in a one day in-school suspension (ISS), under OPRF's Code of Conduct. Additional offenses result in additional consequences. The increasingly popular e-cigarettes are handled the same as regular cigarettes under the Code of Conduct.
OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse acknowledged the difficulty some have with the policy.
"The mixed message that Ms. Patchak-Layman speaks of is really difficult, because, again, on campus, of course, we're a non-smoking institution. There are policies that speak to tobacco, electronic cigarettes and things of that nature. However, we do also have to explicitly state that if you're of age—and I think that's what we're saying — if you're of age, that needs to be done off campus," Rouse says.
The school's policy, Rouse added, does also impact the surrounding neighborhood and greater Oak Park community.
Under the "portal-to-portal" concept OPRF uses, the school can punish students for certain infractions that do take place off-campus that filters back into the school, Rouse says.
The high school has punished students for improper behavior taking place on social media websites, such as bullying. A half-dozen OPRF student athletes were suspended in 2007 after photos were sent anonymously to the school showing them at an off-campus party where alcohol was served, which violates the school's Athletic Code of Conduct. The players were suspended from playing in their respective team games.
But if 18-year-old students are smoking around the immediate neighborhood, that's hard for the school to punish, said Rouse.
"I think the difficulty that we experience with port-to-port and with smoking is that this becomes the gift and the curse in being in a residential area," he said. "Students know that across the street from our school is difficult for us, as a school, to consequence them for things such as smoking. And so what happens is when kids are across the street, the neighbors call us. We inform the neighbors that they have to call police. It is a very difficult thing to navigate with the parents of the students, as well as with the community."
For Kristine Raino-Ogden, a member of anti-substance group IMPACT, the "of age" reference is not problematic to her, but that the old language was a bit odd, she said, and did send a mixed message.
"It would be least ambiguous to simply state, 'The use of tobacco in any form by students on school property is prohibited.' Why do they have to mention where they can go to smoke?" she said.
Still, cigarette use among some OPRF students is low compared to marijuana and alcohol use, according to OPRF's most recent Illinois Youth Survey results.
Given biennially by the state since 1990, the survey is taken by high school sophomores and seniors each spring, with results released in the fall. Just under 1,200 OPRF students in those classes took the 2012 survey. Of those, 10 percent of sophomores and 21 percent of seniors reported using cigarettes within the previous year.
By comparison, 37 percent of the 10th graders and 51 percent of OPRF's seniors reported using marijuana over that period. For alcohol use during that period, 76 percent of seniors and 62 percent of sophomores reported using.
About the same number of OPRF students took this year's survey, according to OPRF.