OPRF steps up effort to control long-standing rodent problem

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

Oak Park and River Forest High School is known for many things—strong academics, diverse co-curriculars, and its school motto "Those Things That Are Best."

But over the years, the school has garnered a not-so-flattering reputation concerning those pesky mice scurrying around the building.

School officials admit they've had a rodent problem for some time in its 100-plus year old building. Officials also say the school has been lax in enforcing its "no-food-in-the-classrooms" rule. That changed this school year.

Teachers and students are now prohibited from eating in the classroom or any other "undesignated" eating area. The high school is also cracking down on food that's left in the building by kids and adult coaches or club sponsors after school and over the weekend. Officials also stress that food leftover in the now off-limits Student Center by kids was a problem. All of that contributed to—and fed—OPRF's mouse problem, schools officials say.

The rodent topic, in a very rare instance, highlighted a school board discussion at the Sept. 27, board regular session.

"We have often and consistently had a rule as it relates to not eating in the classrooms. We have just gotten better this year at enforcing several procedures that we have," said Principal Nathaniel Rouse, during his update to the board on the current "modified closed campus policy."

The "MCC," as officials refer to it, went into effect this school year. The school also this year stepped up its efforts to control its rodent problem.

"We did need to eradicate our pest problem, which has been kind of a historical problem that we've had significant challenges with that just became overwhelming," said Cheryl Witham, OPRF's chief financial officer. "I don't believe there can ever be a time which we can open the whole campus again and eat anywhere whenever you want and leave food out, because we will have rodents."

Witham, however, added that the rodent problem was unrelated to the modified closed campus policy, though the school is addressing both issues simultaneously this year.

But some parents, kids, and on the QT, teachers, are upset, arguing that the changes and rules enforcement are too heavy-handed. Two parents even spoke during public comments criticizing OPRF's "new environment." Some board members have expressed concern about the closing of the Student Center to kids, as well as the impact the "no food" rule has on co-curricular activities after school and on the weekend.

Rouse acknowledged those concerns.

"The combination of that procedure, in addition to the modified closed campus has definitely caused, and rightfully I can certainly understand, some of the confusion," he said.

The school, Rouse added, has 14 designated eating areas for adults but that students are to eat in the cafeteria. Board member Sharon Patchak-Layman asked about students who bring lunch from home and where those are kept in the building. Rouse said students are to carry their meals with them and to the cafeteria during lunchtime. That procedure, he noted, has always been in effect but not always adhered to.

During after school practices where kids are in the building, Rouse said the North Cafeteria does provide packaged food and a space for them to eat. For sporting events, the school will figure out a place for kids to eat if needed, Rouse said. But coaches, he said, need to make that request directly to the athletic director; or to the principal for student activities concerning co-curriculars.

Rouse added that food can be ordered from off campus as long as it's eaten in the proper area and custodians are alerted about cleaning up afterward.

"Our issue has always been a lack of diligence in when we do order food, making sure that the necessarily protocols are in place so that the food is removed properly," Rouse said. "When that doesn't happen, what we find is that when we come in on Monday that there's food that's been left out in our building for two days."

Rouse and some on the board stressed that adults also need to follow these rules if they're monitoring students.

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