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Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Death In The Afternoon

Death In The Afternoon

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One day in October, Mikhail Barg, a senior at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Maryland, decided to grab a quick lunch off campus with two friends. That decision cost him his life. The 17-year-old, speeding to squeeze the trip into the school's 44-minute lunch period, slammed his car into a utility pole. Four days later, he died of his injuries.

The incident was one of a number of recent high-profile lunchtime accidents that have spurred school officials to rethink open-campus policies. In September, three Miami-area teenagers died in a high-speed, noon-hour car crash. In Phoenix, meanwhile, there has been an unnerving string of tragedies: At least six area students, including one in November, have died, and 18 others have been injured, in lunchtime crashes in the past five years.

To many, the solution seems obvious: Require students to remain at school during lunch-time. Proponents argue closed campuses curb accidents during the school day, increase school-meal revenue, and reduce afternoon absences and parking-lot misbehavior.

From a legal standpoint, letting students roam at lunchtime is risky, observes Stephen Yurek, general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Virginia. Schools with open-campus policies shoulder some legal liability for students who leave for lunch, Yurek says. Courts ruling in lawsuits filed by victims and their families often seek to determine whether an open-campus school made reasonable efforts to ensure student safety. If students walk to nearby restaurants, for example, has the school provided crossing guards or requested crosswalks? Or if students leave campus by car, are local police asked to patrol nearby roads to prevent speeding or reckless driving? In the end, a school's safest legal option is to close its campus. "I think a lot of schools don't understand," says Yurek. "They are responsible for the kids."

Still, some school officials say the choice is not so simple. "The people who sit out there and make judgments don't understand" all that is involved in a decision to close a campus, says Wayne Whigham, principal of Seneca Valley, Mikhail Barg's school, in the suburban Washington, D.C., district of Montgomery County. Officials must consider students' rights and privileges, local tradition, and available cafeteria space.

And changing the rules can be costly, as Miami-Dade school board members learned last year. In April, they voted to close campuses at lunch but backed away from the plan when estimates put the price of renovating and enlarging cafeterias at $9 million. Then came the September accident that killed three students, and some parents demanded immediate changes. "We're working toward closing all our campuses, and they must be closed by fall of 2004," sooner if possible, Deputy Superintendent Henry Fraind says now. "I believe the board finally convinced themselves that having between 30 and 42 minutes for lunch is not enough time" for students to leave and return safely.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, after a 15-year-old student from Chaparral High died in a lunchtime crash in February 1998, the school polled parents and held a community meeting to discuss its open-campus policy. A parent council voted to deny off-campus privileges to all students but seniors who had their parents' permission to leave school grounds. But that wasn't drastic enough for the Scottsdale school board, which closed lunches for the district's 27,000 students in fall 1998. Like Miami, the district has had to bite the bullet and spend money on hiring more employees, erecting fences, and providing outdoor picnic tables to accommodate the larger lunch crowds.

Chaparral principal John Kriekard says the closed campus encourages more students to participate in school activities. But he believes the seniors-only compromise devised by the school's parent council made sense. "I believe it's proper to close down a bit" at lunch, he says.

At Seneca Valley High, principal Whigham says discussions about whether to close campus are underway. In the 128,000-student Montgomery County district, where each school decides its own lunchtime policies, nine out of 23 schools let at least some students leave campus. Whigham says he favors keeping students on campus to avoid the headache of making sure they behave while off school grounds. But he maintains that closed campuses can't prevent tragedies like the Mikhail Barg accident, especially if students break the rules, leave campus, and drive fast. "Open lunch didn't kill the kid, and I'm not trying to be callous," says Whigham.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Page 16

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