Lunchtime never comes easy in the tranquil section of Culver City where Ruth Baldwin lives. It begins when the doors are flung open at Culver City High School, releasing hundreds of hungry students on their way to nearby fast-food restaurants.
"They eat their lunches in their cars and throw the litter on our lawns," she told the Culver City Board of Education last week. "They like to throw glass bottles in the street for the cars to break. They park their cars in front of our houses, roll their car windows down and turn the volume up. Some people work at night (and are disturbed when they try to sleep during the day)."
The residents complain that the students leave a trail of empty bottles, cans and wrappers from Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King and other places. They say the neighborhood around the school, at 4401 Elenda St., has become the school cafeteria.
Fed up with the annoyance, Baldwin and other residents presented a petition with 250 signatures to the school board in January asking that students be restricted to campus at lunchtime. Many parents also said a closed campus might reduce alcohol and drug abuse.
The school board asked a committee composed of parents, students and teachers to look into the matter. The committee has recommended curtailing off-campus lunches, but the board delayed its decision until May.
Students, afraid of losing what they consider an important freedom, have mounted a counterattack. More than 40 attended Tuesday's school board meeting to voice opposition to the committee's recommendation that off-campus eating privileges be phased out over three years.
They told the board that only a minority of the more than 1,300 students who leave campus at noon create a nuisance in the surrounding community. There are 1,800 students on campus.
Most students want to eat off campus and local establishments depend on the business, according to Louis Boulgarides, a high school senior and former student body president.
"Right now we are averaging about a fight a month," Boulgarides said, and he theorized that the number of fights would increase if students were confined to campus.
He said that an informal student poll of a portion of the 85-member faculty found that 33 teachers favor the present system and 16 teachers oppose it. "Out of the 16 teachers who opposed it, 11 said they would not be able to put in the time it would take to supervise students," Boulgarides added.
Culver City High School students have been allowed to leave campus for the 41-minute lunch period for 15 years. Students are restricted to campus during the remainder of the school day.
Supt. Curtis I. Rethmeyer said he was inclined to recommend that the board accept the committee's three-year phase-out plan.
Under the committee's proposal, 9th-graders would be required to eat on campus beginning in September. If problems continue in the neighborhood, 9th- and 10th-graders would be restricted the next year. Finally, 9th-, 10th- and 11th-graders would be confined to campus during the third year if the problems did not abate. The committee recommended that seniors retain their right to leave school.
"Students want the freedom to go off campus, but the board has the role of balancing that freedom with the impact on the neighborhood," Rethmeyer said.
Board members did not respond to any of the comments at Tuesday's meeting. They delayed their final decision to give the staff time to provide more information on how the district would feed and supervise students who would be required to stay on campus.
School board member Julie Lugo Cerra said, "There is no quick fix. There is no easy solution to the problem."
Added board member Kay Lyou, "I think I would like to see some options."
Robert Knopf wanted to know what it would cost the district to keep students on campus. "If we keep the students on campus can we feed them?" Knopf asked. The cafeteria, school officials said, can only accommodate about a third of the student body.
Sharon Jansta, president of the high school PTA, said the district would have to provide more activities if it requires students to remain on campus. "I don't believe that ninth-graders are mature enough to be off campus," she said.
Still, students argue that the proposed solution before the board would penalize the majority of students for the acts of a few, or to appease a few residents.