School board likely to vote Tuesday on discontinuing open campus at VCHS

The Vandalia Board of Education is likely to vote next Tuesday night on closing the Vandalia Community High School campus.

If approved, VCHS students will no longer be allowed to leave the school grounds at any time during the school day, including lunchtime.

Based on discussions at a public meeting on Monday evening, there is heavy sentiment for Vandalia to become the final district within Bond, Fayette and Effingham counties to go to a closed campus.

At that 45-minute meeting in the VCHS cafeteria, district officials presented their reasons for closing the campus, including student safety and addressing the rising number of unexcused absences after lunch periods at the school.

Only one person voiced opposition to the planned move at Mondays meeting, and school officials as well as law enforcement officials explained the reasoning behind the action.

At the start of the meeting, Superintendent Rich Well emphasized that the closure of the campus is not something that has come up overnight. Its been talked about for about 20 years.

The district, at the urging of some law enforcement officials, considered the action about five years ago. Well said the district chose not to act at that time because of the possible financial impact on the district.

The time (to act) is now, Well said.

When asked by Gail DePaolo, a district counselor and parent of a current VCHS student, what that impact would be, Well said its hard at this point to come up with an exact figure.

He said that the goal is to adjust scheduling so that no additional supervisory help is needed during lunch periods. A worst-case scenario is $5,000 to $10,000, he said.

After the meeting, Well said that even if the district does have to add supervisors, it will be worth it.

Even if it is $5,000 or $10,000, that amount pales in comparison to what one accident would cost us, he said.

Such an accident, he said, is possible as students cross a nearby street leaving or coming back to school during lunch.

That is one of the main reasons district officials wish to close the campus, and Vandalia Mayor Rick Gottman said thats one of the concerns he hears from local residents.

The calls I get are due to traffic, Gottman said. I hear about students walking out in front of cars.

The mayor said he hears mainly from elderly drivers, and my fear is one of the kids getting hit by one of these people.

Its very important to look out for the kids, to keep them in a safe environment, Gottman said. I personally am in favor of closing the campus.

Vandalia Police Chief Larry Eason voiced the same opinion.

In addition to the traffic issue, Eason said his officials regularly respond to locations such as Caseys General Store for reports of smoking and rowdiness.

Also at issue is illegal drug activity on nearby properties, including the parking lot at the building on School Street that formerly housed the Kaskaskia College Vandalia Campus.

Now that KC has moved from that location, city police no longer have the authority to go onto that property to deal with activity that may be illegal. We cant do anything, Eason said.

Steve Tarter, a state police officer who was among those pushing for closure of the campus several years ago, agreed with Eason.

Theres nothing they can do or nothing you (school officials) can do or nothing I can do and thats not right, Tarter said.

He also pointed out that the Salem School District closed their high school campus a few years ago. Since then, the district has seen a drastic reduction in truancy, drug problems and fights in school.

Personally, I think that will carry over and youll have the same results here, Tarter said.

Eason said one issue with having a closed campus is that under the current setup, a student could be abducted at the start of the first lunch period and not be missed for about two hours, when attendance for the second half of the school day is taken.

Thats a long time to not know that we should be out looking for that student, Eason said.

Speaking against the change, Joe Hills said, I think youre infringing on several students rights. The school is stepping out of their boundaries.

Problems that result from students leaving the school grounds will be resolved, he said, if the police department and other government agencies do their job.

Hill said that he did some investigating and asked some questions.

He contended that businesses such as Caseys like the kids to come in. The park district, Hill said, They have no problems with the kids.

If the campus is closed, he argued, the problems that exist just off of school grounds would be brought into the school.

If you enclose it, there are going to be things going on in the bathroom, a lot going on in the stairwells, he said.

Board member Chris Palmer, who is a Secretary of State police officer, said to Hill, I dont disagree with some of the things you said.

But we are liable for those kids when they cross the street. From a liability standpoint, wed be crazy not to do it (close the campus).

If somehow we wouldnt close the campus and theres an accident, we would be that much more liable, because we know theres a problem, Palmer said.

Well asked Hill, who teaches in the Taylorville School District, if the high school there is a closed campus.

Hill said he doesnt know the answer to that question, but that it doesnt matter. Its irrelevant; were talking about our community.

He contended that the answer to the problems being discussed is educating the students about changing the negative habits that they have acquired outside the school.

Amy Vieregge, a high school teacher and parent of a current VCHS student, asked whether there is enough space to accommodate all students during the lunch periods.

Janine Lotz, dietary supervisor for the district, said her staff currently serves about two-thirds of the VCHS student body, and she feels that there would be no problems.

We may have to add a few more tables, Lotz said.

Well added that the gym and other areas could be utilized so that all different factions of the student body could be with their friends during lunch periods.

Lotz also explained that the district began allowing local eateries to bring their products into the high school several years ago, as a way of providing more variety to the students.

The kids do have a lot of choices, she said.

By bringing that food into the school, the district also helps to prevent nuisances caused by some students at those businesses in the area, Well said.

Well said he has not heard complaints about the proposed closure of the campus from any of those food businesses, and VCHS Assistant Principal Brian Kern said those eateries might actually see an increase in business.

I can name 10 people who avoid this area of town because they dont want to deal with the kids, Kern said.

Kern and VCHS Principal Randy Protz have been closely tracking since the start of the school year unexcused absences at the start of the school day, during lunch periods and during sixth hour.

During that period, the number of unexcused absences and tardiness instances is 747.

During fourth hour, Kern said, that number increases to 850, and during fifth hour, its 959.

During sixth hour, when everybody should be back in class, it goes over 1,000, he said.

Ken also said that in the event of an emergency situation, such as a fire or tornado, during the lunch hour, its impossible for the district to account for each and every student.

Thats one thing that parent Molly George hadnt considered.

If something like that happened, I wouldnt have a clue where my daughter was at the time, she said. There are a lot of issues (in favor of a closed campus) being brought up that I hadnt thought of.

While there were only a few parents at Mondays meeting, Protz said he and Kern have heard from a number of parents on a daily basis.

We have parents who call us who say that they dont want their kids to leave the school grounds, because of some of the things they know their kids are doing during lunch, Protz said.

We have to tell them that theres nothing we can do, that their kids have the right to leave here at lunch if they want, he said.

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