Open lunch? Weighing pros & cons

Special to The News and Sentinel

MARIETTA – Open lunch is a privilege enjoyed by most juniors and seniors at Marietta High School – a time when many of those students hop into cars and head for their favorite eateries. But driving safely to lunch and getting back on campus within the time allotted can be a challenge.

Open lunch in Washington County is currently only available at Marietta High School, but Belpre High School students are also about to have the option, and other area schools have previously let students leave campus to eat.

“We get about 42 minutes, and that’s usually not enough time,” MHS senior Hailey Carman said as she and friend Courtney Clark grabbed a quick bite at Huck’s Farm Market.

Fellow senior Sarah Rauch agreed.

“Sometimes you get a little rushed, but if you go someplace close like this it’s not too bad,” she said. “It takes about five minutes to get here from school, depending on traffic.”

Marietta High School has traditionally had an open lunch policy, but went to closed lunch for the 2011-2012 school year, partly due to safety concerns stemming from students involved in traffic accidents during the lunch hour.

Four MHS students on their lunch hour were recently transported to Marietta Memorial Hospital after a teen driver pulled into the path of an oncoming pickup truck at the intersection of Academy and Colegate drives.

Two more MHS teens, who were also on their lunch break, narrowly escaped serious injury Nov. 26, 2012, when their vehicle ran off Colegate Drive, knocking over a utility pole that flattened the car and draped an oncoming vehicle with live power lines. One youth was transported to the hospital from that crash.

In October 2010, three students were in a lunchtime crash when they pulled into the path of a Smitty’s Pizza truck on Camp Avenue. All three were treated and released for minor injuries.

And on Aug. 29, 2009, five MHS students were involved in a two-vehicle accident along Glendale Road while on their lunch hour. Police reported two of those teens were transported to the hospital with minor injuries.

Last year the school re-opened the lunch hour for juniors and seniors who meet certain standards, defined as an “AAA Club” policy based on attendance, academics and attitude.

“They must have no ‘F’ grades, have a 95 percent attendance rate, and no out of school suspensions to be eligible,” said assistant principal Chad Rinard.

He said the school administration tracks in-school detention and out of school suspensions on every student. Students who don’t meet those criteria are not allowed to participate in open lunch activities, which include being able to drive off campus during their 50-minute lunch hour.

“But not all students drive to lunch, many walk down the hill to Wendy’s for lunch,” Rinard noted. “But AAA is essentially a reward system to help students develop more responsibility during their last two years of school.”

MHS senior Caleb Hall and his friend, Troy Smithberger, a junior, drove to the Dairy Queen on Pike Street for lunch on a recent afternoon.

“Open lunch does give us time to eat, but we could use a little more time,” Hall said, adding that he doesn’t have to exceed the posted speed limit to get lunch.

Fellow senior Patrick Fankell also drives off campus at lunchtime.

“It gives me enough time to go home for lunch in Devola, and I can even watch a little TV before returning to school,” he said.

Senior Tylee Newbrough said lunchtime traffic from the school often backs up at the Academy Drive intersection with Colegate Drive, which can cut the lunch break short.

“And it depends on where you’re going for lunch. The Wendy’s (on Muskingum Drive) is close to school, but a lot of kids go there,” she said. “And we like to go inside and sit down for lunch.”

Her friend, senior Caitlin Harrison, agreed.

“Traffic can really get backed up, and it basically becomes a mad rush to lunch,” she said. “We usually have just enough time.”

Many students grab a sandwich at Huck’s Farm Market on Muskingum Drive, which is about a five-minute drive from the school.

Proprietor Mike Huck said it’s great for business.

“When they had closed lunch a couple of years ago it really had an impact on our business, and we miss it when school lets out for summer,” he said.

Belpre High School currently has a closed lunch policy, but Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said that’s about to change.

“The high school has traditionally had open lunch for juniors and seniors,” he said. “The biggest reason we closed lunch this year was for student safety.”

Dunn said the students had open lunch, but safety became an issue as they had only a short time to drive to a local restaurant and return to school.

“Some kids were also coming back late or buying their food and bringing it back to class,” he said.

But Dunn said Principal Dennis Eichinger is currently working with the senior class to re-open lunch at Belpre High, with some stipulations, similar to the AAA program at Marietta High School.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to open lunch again by Oct. 1,” Dunn said. “But there will be conditions. They can’t be tardy. If they’re late for classes they lose the open lunch privilege. The second condition is academics. If they are not pulling the grades they can’t go to open lunch.”

He said the final condition is that students must pass all phases of the Ohio Graduation Test.

“The open lunch will begin with seniors first, and if it works out we’ll be looking at including juniors later in the year,” Dunn said.

Other area schools, like Waterford High, maintain a closed lunch policy.

Principal Randy Shrider said Waterford students aren’t allowed to drive off campus during lunch, although some students who live within a well-defined area near the school are permitted to walk home for lunch each day.

“But our lunch period is about 42 minutes long, so we only have six students who walk home during that time,” he said. “Essentially it’s a closed lunch policy that’s been in effect since I came here.”

Warren High School Principal Ben Cunningham said open lunch is not observed at that facility, and that is also the case at Williamstown High School in West Virginia, although Williamstown High has had open lunch hours in the past.

Teen drivers heading off campus for lunch isn’t particularly favored by some local law enforcement.

“I’d be absolutely opposed to open lunch at school. You send your kids to school knowing they’ll be safe all day, but the next thing you know there’s a phone call that the kid has been in a wreck during his lunch hour,” said Sgt. Rod Hupp with the Marietta Police Department.

Troopers with the Ohio State Highway Patrol say allowing open lunch is a decision left to individual schools and parents.

“It’s obviously up to each school to set the policy, but anytime anyone is driving on the roadways, regardless of age, they need to obey the traffic laws and watch out for other drivers,” said Sgt. Michael Seabolt with the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Marietta post.

Post commander Lt. Carlos Smith agreed.

“We recommend if a school allows students to drive during lunch hour that those teens stay within the policies set by the school district,” he said.