Jason Wayman, first-year principal at Montezuma-Cortez High School, hoped it wouldn't come to this. But he, and other administrators, saw no other recourse.
Citing widespread truancy and periodic cases of "impaired students" coming back from lunch, the school has decided to close campus for most freshmen and sophomores, effective Jan. 21.
Wayman said attendance problems have spiked this year compared to last. By December, the attendance office had already registered more post-lunch tardies and unverified absences than the entire 2011-12 school year. Eighty-five percent of underclassmen had problems getting back on time at least once.
He also said more students are showing up to fourth period noticeably altered by drugs or alcohol. During first semester, administrators reported 22 incidents, most of which involve three to four students. Each incident takes about six man-hours to resolve - an afternoon for two administrators - because they must question the student(s), call the police, administer a sobriety test, search the student's backpack and locker, and schedule disciplinary action (including a court date for repeat offenders).
The vast majority of violators caught this year have been freshmen and sophomores.
Wayman broke the news at a school-wide assembly Monday. He knows the change won't be popular among students. But with input from teachers, he concluded that too much class time was being wasted on interruptions and decided to take action now.
"We added five minutes to lunch (earlier this year) to help curb the problem, and the problem got worse. We couldn't turn a blind eye to it the rest of this year," he said.
Several parents protested the decision at an accountability committee meeting last week, saying responsible students were being punished for the mistakes of their more irresponsible peers.
"Why do we cater to the bad ones?" one mother asked. "Some students are doing everything we ask them to do, and yet we take away their privileges too."
David Burch, M-CHS student body president, echoed similar thoughts and said it felt like a harsh deal.
In response, Wayman loosened the policy to allow students with "clean records" - meaning no tardies or unverified absences - to retain their open-campus privileges. He hopes the loophole will incentivize good behavior.
"We're going to allow students with no violations from the first two quarters to (leave). Anyone who missed out this time can earn it back fourth quarter with perfect (third quarter) attendance," he said.
Excused absences for things like doctors appointments and family emergencies will not count against a student's record.
Keeping tabs on which students are staying and leaving will be more manageable, Wayman said, because the school will split lunch into two periods, and also because all students now exit the building through the main entrance. Phased in this semester and integrated more completely next year, student identification cards with colored stickers will help denote off-campus privileges.
The new policy means that M-CHS hallways, the courtyard and commons area - where lunch is served - will be more crowded.
So kitchen staff do not run short of food, teachers distributed surveys to underclassmen Monday to gauge how many will eat lunch at the school cafeteria.
Even so, food services director Sandi Vanhoutean is expecting some logistical hiccups at first.
"Right now the cooks have (quantities) down to a fine science," she said. "There will be some adjustment, but once we observe (purchasing patterns), it'll run like clockwork. Until then, there will be some guesswork as far as how much food to prepare."
Open campus high schools are in the minority nationwide, but are commonplace in Southwest Colorado. Students may leave for lunch at both Mancos and Dolores high schools. The same is true for Durango High School, although administrators there toyed with the idea of closing campus about seven years ago. They ultimately withdrew the proposal after objections from local food vendors.
Managers at Arby's and Sonic, two of the closest restaurants to M-CHS, said business from students fluctuates from day to day. They also said there is no way to know the grade level of their patrons, so they couldn't make predictions about how the change would affect lunch sales.