Community moves forward after controversial UA School Board decision to phase out open lunch policy.
BY SAMMY BONASSO, ‘20; DYLAN CARLSON SIRVENT, KATHERINE DOMINEK AND SOPHIE YANG, ‘20.
As incoming freshmen were under the scorching sun or completing their summer reading somewhere far from Ohio, the Upper Arlington Board of Education voted to close lunch, drawing an end to the long-standing UAHS tradition of open lunch.
The school board delivered its decision at an open meeting on June 27 in the East Cafeteria. Following a conventional roll call and speeches from school administrators, nine community members stepped in turns to the podium—a second grade teacher, multiple parents, a recently graduated alum and two incoming freshmen—all imploring the board to keep campus open.
But as votes were cast, all but one Board member voted to close lunch for the class of 2022 and younger students.
Many of the community members who attended the meeting left disappointed. The decision remains unpopular: in an August Arlingtonian survey of 78 students, only 4 percent said they supported the new policy.
But with the Board’s choice seemingly final, UAHS administrators are compensating for the changes. They are providing new spaces for the hundreds of incoming freshmen to eat lunch within the high school, such as the mezzanine; adding more dining options and food stations; and creating a “Lunchtime Advisory Team” made of freshmen who will collaborate with staff to improve lunch experiences in the school.
Last February following school walkouts and the Parkland, Florida shooting, school safety became a central issue. The school board authorized Superintendent Paul Imhoff to begin a safety audit on all Upper Arlington schools. The Upper Arlington police and fire departments worked with Safeguard Risk Solutions to conduct the audit.
After the results came back in May, Safeguard advocated balancing security in schools with positive atmospheres. The company said schools should resemble castles more than prisons.
The audit said that with 31 entrances and exits, open lunch and open study hall made tracking students extremely difficult and presented safety risks.
“Our local first responders and other safety experts have advised that restricting the flow of traffic in and out of a building is a very important piece of an overall safety plan,” said Board President Carol Mohr, who voted in favor of closing campus.
Junior Quentin Zimmer feels safer with the changes but does not passionately support the motion to close campus.
“It’s a lot easier for administrators if something were to go wrong, such as an active shooter,” Zimmer said, “or if you have something like a fire where you need to know that people aren’t in the school.”
But sophomore Sarah Thyer said the changes do not make her feel safer.
“If someone’s really determined to come in and hurt people, there are tons of doors [within the building],” Thyer said.
The audit also recommended safety training and an ID card system that would allow administrators to track students entering and exiting the school. With barcodes added to 2018-19 school IDs, officials anticipate the system to be implemented this year.
In the months leading up to—and even after—the board’s decision, the community debated the merits of open lunch on online groups like the Upper Arlington Ohio Discussion Forum on Facebook. According to Imhoff, the school board also received about 100 emails on the topic.
Though campus was closed due to the recommendations made by the audit, UAHS principal Andrew Theado said discontinuing this policy was just an “accident away.”
Imhoff said the move to close lunch was a preventionary move rather than a reactionary one.
“Most schools close lunch as soon as someone dies in an accident: that’s the most typical,” Imhoff said. “That’s why one of the board members said they didn’t want to wait for someone to die to make that decision.”
Jim Buffer, vice principal of UAHS from 2000 to 2004 and now the principal of Tremont Elementary School, deemed closing lunch necessary even aside from safety.
“There was not a week that went by I didn’t have to go to [a local restaurant] to smooth over problems students had caused,” Buffer said. “One time there was a knock-down, drag-out fight in the middle of Wendy’s and the police had to intervene. There was broken furniture and quite a mess.”
Buffer also said that apart from disrupting local businesses, students were making unsafe choices during their open periods.
“I know from many first-hand experiences 20 years ago, the kids were making very unsafe choices during open lunch, whether that involved alcohol, other drugs or unsafe motor vehicle operation,” Buffer said.
Buffer said he has fond memories of open lunch from when he was a UAHS student himself, but based on his professional experience he strongly supports closing campus.
“The risks involved far outweigh the benefits. You really open yourself up to some issues should something terrible happen during open lunch,” Buffer said.
A big issue that has been raised in the debate over open campus is mental health. However, Imhoff said the high school’s inability to house its full 1800-student population—not mental health—was the main reason for implementing closed lunch over four years.
“We need time to build our capacity for the food service, and it takes us time to do that,” Imhoff said. “I believe having open lunch causes a lot of mental health issues that we’re not able to deal with, and I don’t think it’s in the best interest of kids.”
Other students disagreed, including class of 2018 alum Jordyn Stone. She spoke at the June 27 board meeting and said open lunch was a necessity for her brother who has high-functioning autism.
“When I first heard about closing lunch the first thing I thought about was my brother … he really, really, really has struggled these past two years with making friends and when he [didn’t have his driver’s license] he walked to my grandparents’ house,” Stone said. “That’s where he ate lunch every day because he struggled so much with the thought of people all crowding around in the lunchroom and not having anywhere to go. It would absolutely kill me to think of anyone else—another incoming freshman—having to do the same thing.”
Stone added that those 48 minutes where she ate with her brother was among the best parts of the day.
“You’re stuck in a school all day. You need to take a break … go outside and just forget school for a second. I couldn’t imagine how it would feel for someone who’s really struggling and needs to get out,” Stone said.
Senior Savannah Stearmer lives less than a five minute walk away from the high school and shares Stone’s sentiment. Every lunch period since freshman year, she has walked home for lunch to de-stress.
“I really value being able to go home because I just can’t sit in the cafeteria—it’s always too loud,” Stearmer said. “I can just make my food in my own time. It’s nice to be out of the noise.”
Without open lunch, Stearmer said her freshman year would’ve been more difficult.
“I definitely would’ve been much more anxious,” Stearmer said. “Freshman year, I didn’t have a really strong sense of place in the school. Being able to go home substituted that place.”
However, Zimmer, who believes a closed campus will be safer, said he didn’t find mental health to be an issue.
“I look forward to leaving campus every day,” Zimmer said. “I think it’s unfortunate that students [won’t] have that opportunity, but I don’t think that we’re going to see any detrimental impacts coming out of this.”
But administrators formed the Class of 2022 Advisory Committee to discuss how to best recreate student freedoms and choices previously held with the open lunch policy and to brainstorm ideas for new lunchtime traditions.
About 30 freshmen from the advisory group and along with Theado and new assistant principal Matthew J. Jordan met on July 31, further development and clarifications on closed lunch policy swayed some students and parents to support the closure.
Wal Ozello, who spoke at the meeting and is father to a senior and freshman, is among those who reversed their opinion after the learning of the advisory committee.
“There’s a mental health strategy they will be forming over the year to implement in the future,” Ozello said. “My frustration over open lunch lied in the fact that we couldn’t do both safety and mental health at the same time.”
But sophomore Sarah Thyer, who sometimes ate with friends and members from her church said there are some experiences closed lunch can never replace.
“[Our church members] would go to Raising Cane’s or Market District. It was a way to bond, and obviously the younger people in our church now won’t be allowed to do that now,” Thyer said.
Closing lunch affects not only students but also surrounding businesses.
Wendy’s restaurant manager Carl Newlen, 63, said the new policy will result in a drop of sales. Assistant manager at Yabo’s, Lindsey Kleeberger, 32, said they receive so much business from high school students during lunch hour they have to pull out a second register.
Heater Watkins, 24, the general manager at Chipotle agreed with both Newlen’s and Kleeberger’s predictions.
“You guys bring in a lot of money,” Watkins said. “Our sales will drop a lot.”
Watkins said the drop in sales will lead to lower bonuses and salaries and may impair the restaurant’s ability to hire students. As a mother of two, Watkins also said she treats the high schoolers who come to Chipotle like her own kids.
“You guys are here every day,” Watkins said. “It’s gonna be quiet. I like it when you guys are here, you’re all pumped.”
Although Imhoff does not heed every school-related request, whether from students or parents, he said he does appreciate and listen to their contact. He said at the June 27 board meeting that he was grateful UA residents reach out to officials with “thoughts, opinions and passions.”
But as the decision has already been made, Theado said it is time to work with students to create a welcoming closed campus experience within the new policy.
“Does student voice matter? Yes, of course it does,” Theado said. “Their voice is going to be really important as we move forward.”
Background: In the wake of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, Upper Arlington High School hired a company to conduct a safety audit. Among its final recommendations was closing lunch, and the school board voted with an overwhelming majority to phase out open lunch. Many parents and students were angry, especially freshmen, who would no longer be able to eat out. Moreover, it presented issues for students who have social anxiety and like walking home to be in a calm environment, and whether the school even had the capacity to have all its students inside during the building during lunch hours. This story was among the first in which I went around to local businesses and interviewed employees or managers without any preparation or pre-planned meeting. It was spontaneous and somewhat nerve-wracking, but it showed me that often people like to talk, and the insights we were able to receive from business employees and managers added to the spotlight. More importantly, it resonated strongly with the community, and we even had a letter to the editor sent from a student discussing the perspective of how closing lunches would affect local businesses, and how it changed his perspective on the school board’s decision.