Educators Want Students to Keep Freedom to Leave : School Trustees to Debate Lunchtime Policy

Times Staff Writer

A controversial proposal to allow individual high schools in the San Diego Unified School District to close their campuses and keep students on the premises during lunch will be hotly debated today by the district Board of Trustees.

The effort is spearheaded by Jim Roache, a vice president for the board and commander of the sheriff’s substation in Lemon Grove. Roache believes that the mass lunchtime exodus of students from the district’s 15 high schools leads to truancies and tardiness, promotes the chance for drug and alcohol use and causes traffic and litter in the immediate neighborhoods.

Roache’s proposal, which appears to have majority support on the five-member board, would alter the present open-lunch campus to permit an individual school or the community around the school to initiate a study of a closed campus. The principal could put it into effect after a comprehensive examination of the pros and cons.


Supported, Opposed

Roache has the support of police officers, both from San Diego and the school district, as well as the backing of community organizations in several city neighborhoods, most vocally that of Tierrasanta, where neighborhood leaders would like to see Serra High School become a closed campus.

Roache is opposed by Supt. Tom Payzant, who says high school students deserve the freedom and responsibility of free time during lunch. And Roache faces the unanimous opposition of the district’s high school principals, who share Payzant’s philosophy and also fear the extra burden of security and discipline they think would be needed to enforce a closed campus.

The latest proposal comes in the wake of a January decision by the staff and parent representatives of Patrick Henry High School in San Carlos, after a six-month committee study, not to recommend that their campus be closed. The committee was formed at the urging of Roache and many Henry parents and neighborhood businesses, who argued that a closed campus would lessen drug and alcohol use during lunch and promote school pride by keeping more students around for lunchtime spirit activities.

Both Roache and fellow Trustee Shirley Weber expressed surprise at the Henry committee report in January, which listed benefits from a closed campus as less tardiness and neighborhood vandalism, fewer traffic accidents and reduced use of alcohol and drugs. Both parents and teachers surveyed by the Henry committee overwhelmingly supported a closed campus.

Unanimous Vote

But the committee unanimously voted to keep the campus open after listing potential problems, such as increased smoking, lower student morale, longer lunch lines and higher costs from the requirement for more supervisors.

“The conclusion is not supported by the material,” Weber said at the time.

Under Roache’s proposal, teachers at a high school or members of the community could request a committee study leading to a closed campus. The principal would have the authority to close the campus based on how the committee judged factors of crime, litter, traffic and other problems.

Those campuses that remained open would be required to inform parents that the schools have no liability for the conduct or safety of students who go off campus during lunch.

Roache believes that open campuses are not in the long-term personal and educational interest of high school students, despite longstanding city schools policy from the mid-1970s stemming from state legislation allowing local districts to have the open-campus option.

He cites the closed-campus policy for all 10 high schools in the Grossmont Union High School District east of San Diego, where sheriff’s deputies under Roache have responsibility for juvenile-related crimes. (All high schools in the Escondido, Oceanside, Sweetwater and Poway districts--the county’s other major districts--are also closed campuses.)

Roache said he “has no doubt whatsoever” that Grossmont’s closed-campus policy reduces illicit activity.

Treated as Young Adults

But San Diego city schools principals strongly support their superintendent’s belief that high school students should be treated as young adults and given open-campus privileges.

“On the one hand, we tell these students that they are soon going to be out on their own, but, under a closed-campus policy, we would be telling them at the same time that we don’t trust them for 35 minutes each day,” Crawford High Principal Nancy Shelburne said. “It is averse to the idea of having these young adults learning personal freedom and personal responsibility . . . and if we restrict them during lunch, what about before and after school? What should we do then?”

Mission Bay Principal Barbara Thomas said that, at most, 2% of all students who leave campus during lunch create problems.

“So we should instead take away the privileges or otherwise discipline those students,” rather than punishing the majority who are well-behaved, Thomas said.

Thomas also said she and her administrators would spend an inordinate amount of time trying to enforce the policy, both in posting themselves at the school’s many entrances and in meting out discipline for violators.

$100 a Day in Budget

“Right now I have $100 a day in my budget for supervision, and if I have to add more money, I have to take it out of the classroom . . . and I’d rather have the money going for instruction than looking after kids running off for lunch.”

William Davis, director of student services for the Grossmont district, said his schools do not have tremendous enforcement problems. “Our parents have always backed us strongly in the belief that students should be on the campus for the whole day,” Davis said.

“But I do understand that, for principals and administrators, open campuses are an easier arrangement because they don’t have to supervise the kids when they leave.”

Walt Swanson, associate superintendent for the Poway Unified School District, which has two high schools, said he has worked districts with open and closed campuses.

Although Swanson favors closed campuses, he said such a change is not always clear-cut and easy to carry out.

“It does mean you have to provide more lunches and supervision, and that can create a whole different set of problems,” Swanson said. “The kids don’t like it, and sometimes the vendors (nearby businesses) object, too. But, educationally, I think closing means less tardies, less truants, less auto accidents and not having to start the day all over again after lunch.”