The Janesville School District’s open lunch policy didn’t kill 74-year-old Merilyn Mitchell of Milton.
Police blame 17-year-old Ty Matijevich, who is accused of speeding at 77 mph along Milton Avenue on Oct. 19 when his vehicle collided with Mitchell’s car near the Janesville Mall.
But the open lunch policy undeniably gave Matijevich, a senior at Parker High School, the opportunity to make the poor decisions that authorities say led to Mitchell’s death.
Many high schools, including Milton High School, close their campuses for lunch, and it’s time Parker and Craig high schools consider closing their campuses, too. School officials owe it to the community, including Mitchell’s family, to reevaluate open lunch and question the rationale for continuing it.
Police say they’re concerned about students speeding and driving recklessly during lunch, and The Gazette inquired about the number of incidents and citations linked to open lunch. Unfortunately, the data isn’t available, but it’s information the schools and police should consider collecting. Such data would be valuable in helping officials decide whether to close campus.
So far, Superintendent Steve Pophal has shown little interest in rethinking the open lunch policy. The Gazette asked Pophal on Nov. 27 about the crash, nearly two weeks before a criminal complaint was filed indicating Matijevich was en route to Famous Dave’s BBQ. At the time, Pophal denied the crash had anything to do with lunch. He insisted Matijevich was heading to a construction site, where students are building a house for class.
“It’s way on the north side of town,” Pophal said of the site. “I know where it is. I was there a month ago. That’s where he was going.”
Now that police say lunch factored into the crash, Pophal still seems unmoved, telling The Gazette last week crashes involving students can happen at any time, before and after school and on weekends.
That’s true, but this crash happened under the auspice of the district’s open lunch policy. The district cannot so easily shrug off responsibility.
The open lunch policy forces students to race against a clock—a 30-minute lunch period (40 minutes if you count transition periods). In Matijevich’s case, he ventured to the north side of town, 5 miles from Parker High School on the west side. Are other students making similar mad dashes across town for a bite to eat? If so, they are tempting fate.
For school officials, closing campus has been a nonstarter, in part because they say both Craig and Parker high schools lack enough space to keep all students at school for lunch. But this claim deserves more scrutiny. How is it possible the high schools have enough space to teach all students but not enough space to feed them? Surely, creative minds can devise a solution, perhaps by adjusting lunch schedules.
Maybe the real problem is a lack of attractive dining options, which the schools could help solve by bringing restaurants to the students. That way, students wouldn’t have to leave campus to enjoy Pizza Hut or Jimmy John’s. Delivering food to schools would allow students to continue supporting local businesses, which obviously benefit from the open lunch policy.
There’s no way to force students to become better drivers, but that doesn’t mean crashes like the one that killed Mitchell are inevitable.
The community shouldn’t wait for another tragedy before taking a hard look at what’s happening every day at both of the city’s high schools. Mitchell’s death is reason enough to review the open lunch policy and consider ending it.