School board votes to close high school campus, ending senior perk

Clint Amstrup, student body president at Vashon High School, addresses the school board, while Assistant Principal Stephanie Spencer listens.  - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Clint Amstrup, student body president at Vashon High School, addresses the school board, while Assistant Principal Stephanie Spencer listens.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Vashon High School seniors will no longer be able to zip to Subway, take a quick trip home or run to the beach during their lunch period as a result of a decision made by the five-member board that oversees the Vashon Island School District.

In a three to one vote, with one member not present, the school board last week approved Vashon High School Principal Susan Hanson’s request to close the campus, nixing a long-standing tradition that allowed seniors to go off campus during their 30-minute lunch period.

Board members praised the students — seven of whom attended the meeting — for the way they worked with the board to try to find a compromise. But the high school’s scarce resources, the lack of staff to enforce the policy and the fact that students often can’t get back to campus in time for the start of their fourth-period class were reason enough, they said, to end the senior tradition.

“I think you guys did a great job,” Laura Wishik, the school board’s vice chair, told the students, all of whom were seated in a back row of the meeting room at Courthouse Square. “And then I get to the enforcement issue. The parking lot monitors are Susan and (Vice-Principal) Stephanie (Spencer), and they’ve got better things to do.”

Board Chair Bob Hennessey, concurring with Wishik’s concern about enforcement, told the students, “If you can crack that nut, I’d entertain it.”

John “Oz” Osborne — after making an unsuccessful bid to delay the vote so as to allow more time to consider the students’ proposed compromise — cast the lone vote in support of keeping the campus open. The administration, he said, has done little over the last few years to punish those who have violated the seniors-only policy.

As a result, he told his colleagues on the board, “I feel that the past policy was set up to fail.”

After the vote, the seven students, most of whom had sat silently during the discussion, left the room and gathered in the parking lot, where they expressed frustration over the board’s decision. Students who want to leave campus to smoke pot or get into trouble still will, they noted, adding that it’s those students who follow the rules who will be punished by the policy.

“I think people are going to leave anyway,” said Mike Pruett, who will be a senior this fall.

Josh Cox, another incoming senior, predicted that some students will attempt to organize a massive noon-hour departure in protest of the new policy when school resumes in the fall. “Plans are already under way,” he said.

Chris Carter, an incoming senior who played a lead role in trying to find a compromise between the administration’s desire to close the campus and students’ desire to keep it open, wasn’t able to attend the school board meeting. Carter, the incoming vice president of the Associated Student Body, is at the University of California, Berkeley, for several weeks of debate camp. But in a brief telephone conversation, Carter said he was disappointed by the school board’s decision to back the administration and said he plans to continue to work on the issue.

“We hope to make some more progress this summer and next year. It’s certainly not something that’s dead,” he said.

Many years ago, Vashon High School was an open campus for all grade levels; students could come and go as they pleased during the lunch hour. It was then closed for a few years until about a decade ago, when the administration — in an effort to find a compromise between those who wanted the campus closed and those who wanted it open — decided to allow only seniors the privilege of going off campus for lunch. The policy required that parents sign a form saying their kids could go off campus during lunch and included disciplinary action for those who violated the perk.

But Hanson said the senior-only policy has been hard to enforce. The campus has four entrances, making it difficult to ensure that only seniors are exiting the campus. And during the lunch hour, when teachers, by way of their contract, are granted a “duty free” period, only Hanson, Spencer and a few parent volunteers are available to keep an eye on the sprawling campus and its 500 or so students.

“If everyone would adhere to the rules as laid out, it would be beautiful,” Hanson told the school board last week.

But as she noted in an earlier interview, they don’t — students leave to smoke cigarettes, smoke pot or drink; they return late; and they often take under-classmen in their cars with them. As a result, she said, “It’s become an enforcement issue. And we just don’t have the staff to enforce it.”

The issue came up last April, when the administration and staff — during a routine look at a number of the high school’s policies and procedures — realized they hadn’t looked at this policy in a while. Concern has been mounting about the degree of drug and alcohol use by high school students, in part because of a wide-ranging survey on youth attitudes and habits found Vashon youth smoke pot and drink at higher rates than their counterparts in other parts of the state. At the meeting where the policy was discussed, no teachers or administrators spoke in favor of maintaining the senior tradition.

Hanson, after last Thursday’s vote, said she was pleased with the school board’s vote.

“I think they made a decision based on regard for student safety,” she said.

Meanwhile, she said, she’ll listen to students’ concerns and their ideas for how the senior privilege can be reinstated.

“We will obviously enforce board policy; that’s what I’m charged to do as a principal,” she said. “And we always listen. Whether it goes anywhere else or not, we’ll see.”

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