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Open campus policy up for review

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education River Falls, 54022
River Falls Journal
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River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Are the days of students coming and going from the high school for lunch numbered?

The tradition of an "open campus" in River Falls will be scrutinized in the next two months.

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After getting feedback from high school administrators, the school board will consider whether to keep the open campus system.

A closed campus means students wouldn't be permitted to leave during the school day.

Kit Luedtke, in his first year as assistant high school principal, said no single incident has triggered the policy review. School security is one of Luedtke's main duties.

"There's no easy answer on this," he said. "It's like your car's oil. You need to check it periodically. This is just something we want to re-evaluate, gather information on, and look into the pluses and the minuses to see if the current policy is effective."

Luedtke said student safety is priority No. 1.

"That's what parents entrust us to do," he said. "Safety is our responsibility from the time students walk in the door at 7:30 in the morning to the time they are excused at 2:30 or later. We want to ensure as much as possible that the kids are safe during that period. I have a deep responsibility to make sure that happens."

Luedtke said his research shows that some school districts wait until a tragedy before changing.

"A district may react after the fact -- after a death or a car accident," he said. "I want to be proactive and not be put into that kind of position. On the other hand, I realize we can't protect the students from everything."

A Jan. 31 incident near the high school got the attention of administrators and school board members.

Three juvenile high school student were caught after allegedly breaking into a nearby locked model home during lunch break and smoking pot. They were given citations for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

According to police, the house had been used as a place for students to leave the high school and go smoke.

High School Principal Elaine Baumann said no decision to continue as an open campus or switch to a closed one has been made.

"With issues of school safety becoming more of an issue, the trend is for closed campuses and closer supervision of access to the building," she said. "I have lived in both environments and see merit on both sides -- student safety versus the privilege of leaving campus. I will be able to live with either choice."

School board member Ned Fagan understands student safety concerns but doesn't see why the open campus policy should change.

"If I have understood the administration correctly, there is not a broad trend in the direction of trouble here," Fagan said. "So for me, this is about a solution looking for a problem."

Fagan said the only reason to end a longstanding tradition as open campus would be if the policy change solved a problem.

Fagan said an open high school campus in River Falls goes back generations.

"It's one of the traditions here that help bind us together as a community," he said. "You have parents and grandparents even who have been a part of that tradition when they attended the high school."

Fagan believes an open campus is an "actual learning experience" for students.

"It teaches them time management skills," he said. "In the near future, when they go to college or get a job, they're going to go out for lunch and need to return on time or there will be consequences. The open campus in high school teaches them that responsibility."

Fagan added that a closed lunch period still won't prevent students from bringing drugs to school or showing up under the influence of alcohol.

"They could still do this in the morning first thing," he said. "There are very few students who create problems. Probably fewer than 20. And those students may continue to cause problems, regardless of whether lunch is open or closed."

Fagan said his key point was that the "vast majority" of students use open campus responsibly and return on time after leaving for their 40-minute lunch.

Fagan and board members Barb Kolpin and Chris Wing will get the high school administrator's report on the open/closed campus issue in April. All three sit on the board's Education Program Committee.

Wing promised to listen before casting her vote.

"At the present time, I would have to say that I am leaning toward a closed campus," she said. "My primary motivation is the safety issue."

Wing said student safety is always in the news and can't be ignored. Another reminder was earlier this month when a gunman at Northern Illinois University killed five college students and himself.

Wing also said drug use by local students is another issue.

"The recent expulsion hearings have reminded the board of the fact that we do have a problem with students and illicit substances in our schools," she said. "I'm not saying that these were related to the open campus. (We) would like to find additional ways to help students avoid that type of behavior."

Kolpin says she's neutral on the open/closed campus debate.

"I'll make up my mind after I hear and read the report/recommendation from the administration," Kolpin said. "I owe the administration an open mind, the willingness to be an active listener and to learn from the information that they will present."

The open/closed campus issue was first raised earlier this month at a school board retreat with district administrators at Kilkarney Hills Golf Club.

It's expected to be on the Education Program Committee agenda in April. After that committee makes a recommendation, it goes to the full school board, probably later that month.

Reach Phil Pfuehler at rfjeditor@rivertowns.net and at 426-1050.

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