Policies on Lunchtime Scrutinized After Deadly Crashes

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Whether to allow students off campus for lunch can be a life-or-death decision for school leaders.

In October, some high schools in the Washington area took a new look at their policies on the subject after one student was killed and another was badly hurt after a lunchtime crash in Germantown, Md., a suburb of Washington.

Three Miami-area teenagers died in a high-speed, noon-hour car crash in September, prompting the Miami- Dade County school board to begin closing campuses at lunch.

And last year, the Scottsdale, Ariz., school board in suburban Phoenix decided to close its campuses at lunch after a student died in a lunchtime crash.

School administrators who deal with decisions about closed campuses say the reasons to keep students on school property during lunch include greater safety, more revenue for meal programs, and fewer afternoon absences or parking lot misbehavior.

Then there are students' rights and privileges to consider, local tradition, and lack of space in cafeterias.

"The people who sit out there and make judgments don't understand" all that is involved in the decision, said Wayne Whigham, the principal of Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, part of the Montgomery County, Md., school system. From a legal standpoint, allowing students to leave campus is risky, said Stephen Yurek, the general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va.

"I think a lot of schools don't understand: They are responsible for the kids," Mr. Yurek said.

Schools carry "a burden of care"—a legal term referring to the liability schools shoulder. Even if students are away from campus at lunch, schools shoulder some liability for what happens, Mr. Yurek said. Court decisions vary widely on precisely how much responsibility schools carry when students are off campus.

Reducing Liability

Mr. Yurek said courts often ask whether schools did what a reasonable person would do if entrusted to the care of students at lunch. If students leave campus and walk to nearby restaurants or stores, has the school provided crossing guards? Has the school requested crosswalks? If students leave campus by car, are the parking areas safe? Are local police asked to patrol to prevent speeding or reckless driving?

Schools can also protect themselves to some degree by requiring written permission from parents whose children wish to leave during lunch.

"To reduce the risk to the lowest level is to require them to stay on campus," Mr. Yurek said.

Changing the rules can be costly. Miami-Dade school board members learned that lesson when they voted in April to begin closing campuses at lunch, and then backed away from the plan when they realized it would cost about $9 million for renovations such as enlarging cafeterias to make room for more students.

Then came the terrible lunchtime accident in September that took the lives of three students, and some parents demanded immediate changes in the 350,000-student district.

"We're working toward closing all our campuses, and they must be closed by fall of 2004," said Deputy Superintendent Henry Fraind, explaining the Miami-Dade board's latest decision, approved Oct. 20.

"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, Mr. Fraind said.

In Scottsdale, the issue appears headed for court.

The father of a 15-year-old boy killed in a lunchtime accident in February 1998 is suing the Arizona district, saying school leaders were negligent in allowing high school juniors and seniors to leave school premises. The young man who was killed had broken a rule at Chaparral High School by leaving campus as a sophomore—a rule the lawsuit claims the school didn't enforce.

The issue of closed lunches has received substantial media attention in Arizona. In November, another lunchtime crash killed one student and injured five in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale. The issue also has come up in suburban Mesa.

After the Scottsdale accident, the school's staff polled parents and held a community meeting to discuss the policy. A parent council voted to allow only seniors to leave campus, and only with their parents' permission, said John Kriekard, principal of Chaparral High.

Then, before the new policy could take effect in fall 1998, the Scottsdale school board closed lunches for all the district's 27,000 students. The closed-campus policy required hiring more employees, erecting fences, and providing outdoor picnic tables to accommodate the larger lunch crowds.

Mr. Kriekard said it was a relief to have virtually all his students on campus at lunch. The practice encourages more students to participate in campus activities, he said, and prods some seniors to take a full day of classes even if they have enough graduation credits to carry a smaller courseload.

But Mr. Kriekard believed the school's compromise plan allowing students to leave campus with parental permission made sense. "I believe it's proper to close down a bit" at lunch, he said.

And in suburban Washington, where many high schools require students to stay on campus at lunch, some schools still allow teenagers to leave—including the 1,500-student Seneca Valley High, where a student died in a lunchtime crash this fall. Mr. Whigham, the school's principal, said discussions are underway concerning whether to close campus at lunch.

The 128,000-student Montgomery County district allows schools to decide whether to close at lunch, except in rural areas.

Mr. Whigham said he favored keeping all students on campus because it can be a nuisance for administrators to make sure students behave while off campus.

But even closed campuses can't prevent tragedy, especially if students break the rules and leave anyway, and then make the dangerous decision to drive fast.

"Open lunch didn't kill the kid, and I'm not trying to be callous," Mr. Whigham said.

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Page 8

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Policies on Lunchtime Scrutinized After Deadly Crashes
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