Starting next year, only juniors, seniors can leave for lunch

By Bryan Richardson

Manhattan High sophomores will no longer be allowed to leave school for lunch starting next school year.

The USD 383 school board approved the measure by a 5-2 margin with Walt Pesaresi and Pete Paukstelis dissenting.

Transportation director Doug Messer pitched the idea of closed lunch for sophomores at the Oct. 3 open lunch hearing. The idea was based on restrictions imposed on the licenses of younger students. Until a driver has held a restricted driver’s license for six months or reaches age 17, he or she cannot have more than one non-sibling passenger under the age of 18.

Board member Darell Edie said preventing sophomores from leaving school will help congestion as well as help the district fulfill one of its goals: “to provide a safe and orderly environment.”

It’s possible the change could be the start of a gradual move to close lunch at the whole school. Board members intend to evaluate the impact of closed lunch for sophomores on or before March 5, 2014, which Supt. Bob Shannon anticipated could lead to juniors having closed lunch starting in August 2014 and seniors the following year.

Pesaresi and Paukstelis argued that all students should stay at school for lunch starting next school year in order to eliminate the risk of students dying in car accidents during the lunch period.

Paukstelis asked the board to imagine making the decision it made if a serious lunch period accident involving a senior student had occurred that day.

“Why are we willing to take that chance?” he asked. He said he did not know “what I would tell the parent of a student who was killed during an accident at lunch and why I thought it was okay to keep it open.”

Ulysses High School experienced that sort of tragedy in March of 2008. Four sophomore girls died in a car accident during the school’s open lunch period.

Shannon said Ulysses High still has an open lunch period for its 10th through 12th grade students, although he didn’t know about the nature of the discussions in the aftermath of the deaths.

Pesaresi alluded to two fatal accidents in 2011 at the intersection of US-24 and Flush Road. He said it took multiple “big pools of blood” at that intersection before the state transportation department approved changes to make the area safer. Board member Leah Fliter took exception to Pesaresi’s terminology due to its graphic nature about a sensitive subject.

“I sure hope that isn’t what it takes here,” Pesaresi said. “I’d hate to be a board member having to attend that funeral.”

Shannon said he spoke with Brad Schoen, Riley County Police Department director, in advance of the meeting.

Shannon said the RCPD expressed neutrality on the open lunch policy due to a lack of traffic or other meaningful data for RCPD to recommend closing it. He said Schoen mentioned that the school resource officer was in favor of an open campus on the theory that it allowed students to let off steam.

Fliter said RCPD’s lack of opinion on the issue plus the support from MHS administration and staff made her comfortable about leaving a partial open lunch. “We talked last week a lot about data vs. anecdotes and we have the RCPD saying that open lunch at the high school is not a problem,” she said.

Board member Beth Tatarko said she visited during lunch last Thursday prepared to see everyone running out of the building. Instead, she said she saw a “very orderly 60 or 70 kids” who decided to go to lunch.

Tatarko said the vibe of the lunch period is different from four or five years ago when the lunch area had yet to be renovated. “Had I not gone up to the high school during lunch, I would have voted to close it (for everyone),” she said.

Board president Dave Colburn said he considered a part of this debate to be a parental responsibility to tell a student not to leave if that’s the parent’s desire. “They can say, ‘You’re not going out to lunch. It’s not safe in my opinion. You’re staying in,’” he said.

There was a concern about enforcing the rules to make sure that only juniors and seniors are leaving the building.

Once classes start, the doors are automatically locked and late students have to walk through the front entrance. However, all 37 doors are unlocked from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., meaning students can re-enter from anywhere in the building.

MHS Principal Terry McCarty said it’s an accessibility issue for students since parking is all around the building, so the doors are open around lunch time.

Pesaresi said he’s walked in twice in the last two weeks while the doors were unlocked. He said he wore a hat, so he couldn’t be recognized by the monitored security camera. “I can have a gun under my shirt,” he said. “I can have a gun in my backpack walking in. We either have security or we’re wasting taxpayers’ money.”

Board vice-president Curt Herrman said it’s impossible to fully secure any building. Herrman said the cameras can’t prevent crime from happening but can help lead to the capture of a criminal after it happens.

“The way you describe, we’re going to have a security cop at every door, metal detectors at every door and that’s your vision,” he said to Pesaresi. “We don’t have the money for that.”

Colburn said he’s not advocating guarding every exit to hunt for sophomores attempting to leave. “You’re not playing cops and robbers and figuring out the kids going out whether they’re sophomores or juniors and seniors,” he said.

MHS teacher Lisa Heller said having a policy that doesn’t actively attempt to stop sophomores from leaving isn’t effective. “If you aren’t planning to enforce, and that’s obviously already come out of some people’s mouths, then why have it?” she asked.

Naomi McClendon, MHS student council president, said she doesn’t consider safety to be an issue in Manhattan and at the high school. Even if it was an issue, McClendon said the board’s actions don’t solve the problem.

“If you wanted to create a safe atmosphere, you would have to implement this tomorrow,” she said. “If you’re really so concerned about students getting in a car crash, it’s prone to happen within the next six months just the same as it’s prone to happen next year.”

McClendon said moving to closed lunch shelters students. “If you’re going to shelter kids this much, then you have to say they can’t drive to musical practice, you can’t drive to football practice,” she said. “That’s just too much. You can’t do that.”

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