There’ll be a lot of “new” for Verona Area High School students at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

District officials are hoping to add to that a new lunch policy that would restrict which grade levels could leave campus during lunchtime.

Under a proposal brought to the school board Monday night by VAHS principal Pam Hammen and district school security coordinator Corey Saffold, only juniors and seniors would be allowed to take advantage of an open campus lunch. Freshmen and sophomores won’t be permitted to leave the school premises.

“If we’re going to make a rule like this, this seems like a perfect time,” Hammen said.

Hammen pointed out that students will face many new procedures, including parking, where to enter and using collaborative spaces.

“I think it would be harder for us to move into the school, and then a year later make the move (to change lunch),” she said.

Currently, VAHS has open lunch for all grade levels, partly driven by the school being overcrowded; having students leave for lunch frees up space. Juniors and seniors have an additional privilege, with an option twice a week to take an hour-long “double lunch” and skip their A+ session.

But at the new high school, overcrowding won’t be a problem, Hammen said, as the main atrium will be able to comfortably fit 1,000 students during each of the two lunch periods.

She said creating a limited open campus lunch would remedy some of the issues being had with students, where students from other districts are coming to VAHS to fight, students are holding “fight clubs” in Harriet Park or are going off-campus to smoke marijuana and coming back to classes under the influence.

VAHS administrators have also received complaints about how students are conducting themselves at local businesses when they leave campus to get lunch, she said, and they’ve seen an increase in tardy reports after the lunch period.

Board members were receptive to the idea but raised several concerns, including whether students might be able to find loopholes and how they would enforce individual situations, and they also discussed how the potential of improved food options and updated policies on food delivery to students might work with such a policy.

They generally agreed it would be a good way to balance security and giving older students some independence.

Hammen said as students mature, they need less intervention from support staff, and board member Meredith Stier Christensen agreed from a parent perspective.

“As a mom of a junior, the concerns that I had about open campus as a freshman do not exist anymore,” board member Meredith Stier Christensen said. “That seems like a really natural transition to start opening up some freedoms.”

Security and enforcement

Hammen said closing down part of the campus is a complement to all the money the district has invested into security at the new high school.

To simplify enforcement, juniors and seniors would be asked to both leave and enter back into the school at a single access point off one of the southern parking lots. They would have to show ID confirming their grade level.

Because there’s also a large number of adults who access the high school during passing times for lunch, Hammen said, having separate entrances for where students exit and where adults enter through the front office on the north side of the building will increase safety for staff and students.

“It’s easy for people to get mixed in with our students and have access into the interior of our building and to our staff and students unregistered, unseen, not noticed,” she said.

Board members wondered how easy it might be to work around the system by using separate exits.

At the site of the new high school on the side facing south, there’s a large set of “social stairs” that administration expect to be heavily used by students during the lunch hour. Board member Carolyn Jahnke suggested a sophomore might be able to instead walk out that door and leave campus, and she asked how school officials might enforce the rules.

Board member Amy Almond built off of Jahnke’s comment, asking if school administration have considered assigning parking in the back lots based on grade levels so students don’t access their vehicles when leaving from the social stairs.

Board members also asked how the school would manage keeping a junior or senior on campus if their right to the open campus were revoked based off of past behavioral issues or if were their parents’ wishes to not have them leave campus.

Hammen assured board members that such students could have their open campus lunch privileges revoked, but she said enforcing that is difficult because of the sheer volume of students in the school.

“There’s 1,700 of them, and we don’t want to have to be, ‘Johnny, you sit right here where I can watch you,’” she said.

Take-out and fast food

Another consideration with the rule is the role of food choices – both students’ access to delivery and fast food and the options that will be available at the new campus.

Hammen pointed out that the move to the new campus is further away from fast-food options.

“It’s a long walk if you’re a ninth grader or a 10th grader,” she said. “We’re worried about that scrunch in time, and if they’re coming back late, are they speeding, are they going to have accidents? We’re just worried about the safety of the kids.”

Board members asked to see the school create a take-out policy for food being dropped off at the school.

Students are allowed to order take-out to the school, Hammen said, but she said she’s gotten complaints from delivery drivers after they struggled to be able to find students or found they were unable to pay upon arrival. Now, some places refuse student takeout orders.

“It’s just been such a hassle for them,” she said.

Board member Debbie Biddle agreed that restricting access to take-out with students having access to so many food delivery apps on their smartphones.

“I think students will do it if they really want to,” she said. “So just having a designated place for it to happen would be great.”

Jahnke said she would prefer that take-out not be allowed on the new campus, as the district’s food service is increasing its selection and older students are allowed to leave campus.

“Why don’t you try that first, and if it turns out that’s not going to work, then we can always add it back in,” she said.

Hammen pointed out that on-site food choices will be better.

For one thing, she said, the new school features a production kitchen. The existing high school’s production kitchen where the food is made is located off-site, requiring food to be rewarmed before serving,

Another option being explored is expanding the selection of food available to students by creating several specialty food lines.

Those could include, for example, Italian and pasta, LatinX and Asian cuisine, sandwiches and pizza, as well as food to fit special dietary needs, such as vegetarian.

“If you’re a freshman or a sophomore, we want to make sure you have a lot of options, too,” she said. “They’re really making a strong effort to improve food choices.”

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