Vashon High students fight to keep campus open

Juniors at Vashon High School are troubled by the administration’s proposal to close the campus to seniors. From left to right is Sami Ressler, Chris Carter, Tim Jovanovich, Clint Amstrup, Maya Midgley and Clarissa Boyajian.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Juniors at Vashon High School are troubled by the administration’s proposal to close the campus to seniors. From left to right is Sami Ressler, Chris Carter, Tim Jovanovich, Clint Amstrup, Maya Midgley and Clarissa Boyajian.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

When he’s a senior next year, Chris Carter noted, many of his classmates will be old enough to help determine the next president of the country or tote a gun in Iraq. But if a proposal put forward by Vashon High School’s administration is approved by the school board, neither he nor his friends will be able to leave campus for a sandwich at Subway.

Carter is one of a handful of students — all of them juniors — who is pressing the five-member school board to reconsider the administration’s request to close the campus next fall.

For the past decade or so, seniors have relished the privilege of leaving campus for lunch — a perk the upperclassmen receive as soon as they enter their last year at the high school.

Administrators, however, say the rule is too hard to enforce at the high school, which has four entrances and no gates; routinely, they said, juniors, sophomores and even freshmen slip out, often in the back seats of cars driven by seniors. Sometimes, students are late for their fourth-period class, which follows lunch. Others use the privilege to smoke cigarettes or marijuana off campus, administrators say.

“Currently, the (rules are) flagrantly and routinely ignored,” VHS Principal Susan Hanson told the school board at its last meeting.

Enforcement, she added, is a problem. When it comes to patrolling the grounds during the lunch hour at the 500-student school, Hanson pointed to herself and to Stephanie Spencer, her assistant principal, and said, “We’re it.”

But Carter and a bevy of his friends say it’s unfair to punish their entire class because of the behavior of a handful of students. After 11 years of toeing the line, they say, they want that taste of freedom this rite of passage offers.

“The kids who I’ve talked to are kids who have followed the rules with the assumption that we’d get this one privilege our senior year,” he said. “We feel like we’ve earned it. ... And we feel a little cheated that it’s taken away.”

As a result, Carter, next year’s vice president of the Associated Student Body (ASB), has put together a counter-proposal for the board to consider. According to his one-page proposal, seniors who want the privilege to leave campus during the lunch period must maintain a 2.0 GPA and not have any previous citations, suspensions or expulsions; they’d have to leave via specified exit points and show an ID card if asked; and the off-campus privilege could be revoked at any time at the discretion of the principal.

“We’ve left it up to the administration to say who can’t go off campus; we’ve given them a lot of discretion,” he said of his proposal. “We’re not trying to tie anybody’s hands. But kids who are following the rules and are young adults should be allowed to go off campus for lunch.”

The issue is one that is coming up in districts across the country, often because of a tragic accident that occurs during the lunch hour. On Long Island outside of New York City, the 11,000-student district in Suffolk County closed its campus last fall after a lunchtime accident left three teenagers dead, according to a news story last month in The New York Times. Other districts are following suit.

The issue has also proven contentious elsewhere. According to the Times, after a district in a Phoenix, Ariz., suburb decided to close its campus, 1,200 students walked out of class in protest.

At Vashon High School, the decision to propose closing the campus was not triggered by a specific incident or tragedy, Hanson said. Rather, the administration is in the process of reviewing all of its policies, some of which are old and outdated, and when this one came up before the staff in April, teachers and staff readily agreed that it was time to close the campus, Spencer said.

Some 20 years ago, the high school campus was entirely open, Spencer said. It was then closed for a few years, until the board agreed to what was then seen as a compromise between the open vs. closed campus — a campus open only to seniors. Districts in the region differ in their approach to the issue. Tacoma’s seven high schools are all closed, while the majority of Seattle’s 20 high schools are open.

Mike Zecher, one of the VHS teachers who’s a strong proponent of closing the campus after a decade of it being partially open, said he thinks the issue is cut-and-dried. With four entrances, he said, “It becomes a numbers game. We don’t have enough people to supervise.”

Carter’s proposal that only designated exits be used is thoughtful, he added, but he sees problems in that approach as well.

“I can hear them now complaining about how long it took them to get out of the parking lot,” he said.

Some school board members agree with Zecher.

The board’s policy committee, comprised of board members Dan Chasan and Laura Wishik as well as Superintendent Terry Lindquist and Human Resources Director Amy Sassara, reviewed the administration’s request and recommended that the entire five-member board approve it. Wishik, the board’s vice chair, said they did so because the administration’s request seemed straightforward and reasonable.

“We just don’t have the staff to monitor a policy that allows some students to leave and others not to,” she said. “We’re not trying to punish the students. We just don’t have the staff to handle it.”

But at least one school board member is sympathetic to the teens’ request. John “Oz” Osborne, a father of two daughters, said he agrees with the students that many of them are ready for the bit of additional responsibility an open campus offers them.

“I feel we’re trying to teach kids to be responsible and grow up, and we’re taking away the one avenue where they can do that,” he said.

He also said that closing the campus won’t entirely solve the problem. “The campus is a porous campus, and people will abuse it,” he said.

On Monday, several juniors gathered at a picnic table during their 30-minute lunch break and talked about the issue, a spirited discussion among some of the junior class’s most active and engaged students. Many of them are involved in student government.

To some, the issue is about freedom, trust and responsibility — an acknowledgment of who they are and where they’re headed in their lives. For others, it’s about the food.

Clint Amstrup, ASB president, said with a smile, “I just want a good lunch. I just want Subway.”

Students said they’re frustrated that they had no warning that this was in the works and no chance, until it went to the school board, to weigh in on the issue.

“It just suddenly came up. Why? I hadn’t heard about the problems,” said Clarissa Boyajian, who will represent the senior class in next year’s ASB class cabinet.

“I feel like they’re punishing everyone for a few people’s mistakes. And it’s not fair,” said Maya Midgley. “It’s ridiculous to keep us in this bubble.”

Carter, who has led the charge and has a quiet, level-headed manner about him, said he feels the administration has failed to represent the students in the process and that as a result “ASB is having to step in.” He’s now in direct and frequent e-mail contact with Bob Hennessey, who chairs the school board, in his effort to press the students’ case.

“It’s gotten so political,” he said.

The issue will be taken up by the school board at its next meeting — on Thursday, June 12 — when the five members will likely vote on it. Hennessey, for his part, said he’s concerned about the off-campus privilege because of the number of students who are apparently late for their fourth-period class. But he also said he’s open to the students and wants to ensure that they are fully heard in the process. And he said he’s encouraged Carter to continue to press his case.

“He’s a real smart guy, and he’s a real persuasive guy,” Hennessey said.

Chasan, too, said it’s essential that the board listen fully and well to both sides, including the students.

“The invitation to come up with Plan B is sincere,” he said. “We’re not going to jam something down the administration’s throats. ... But sure, we’d like to find a way to make everybody semi-happy.”

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