Changes to the school's security, including transitioning to a closed campus, brought mixed responses.

Budget constraints mean that Gaston Jr/Sr High School is temporarily not serving hot lunch.

That hasn't been a problem for many students in the ninth through 12th grades. Historically, those students have been allowed to leave campus during lunchtime, going home or elsewhere for meals.

But the Gaston School District has brought a swift end to that practice. Superintendent Susan McKenzie announced that as of Tuesday, Feb. 20, Gaston High has gone from being an open campus to a closed campus. High-schoolers are no longer permitted to go off-campus for lunch.

"It's kind of a sad day when we have to do this, but safety is a priority," McKenzie said.

Concerns over school safety have become a national topic of discussion. The changes in Gaston were announced less than a week after a mass shooting claimed the lives of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

But McKenzie said the violent incident, which grabbed headlines across the country and has generated fierce political debate over how to make schools in the United States safer, wasn't the motivation for the new policy. Rather, it was something district officials have been considering for a long time, she said.

"Of course it's something we think about," McKenzie said. "(But) I told the students in an assembly it wasn't a knee-jerk reaction from (what happened in) Florida. It was about what we felt we needed to do here."

Increased activity from both students and non-students in the area had caused McKenzie and other staff to raise concerns.

"Whether it's kids coming back tardy, complaints from neighbors, kids coming back in an altered state — a lot of different reasons," McKenzie said.

Some school families are upset about the change.

On the district's Facebook page, an announcement was made the day before the closed campus went into effect, letting parents and students know of the change. Reactions were mixed at best.

Chris Jeffries, who has a son in the ninth grade at the school, described her frustrations in a response to the post.

"This is ridiculous for the high schoolers," Jeffries commented. "The school doesn't even serve a complete lunch for them (a dry sandwich and a handful of salad is what they get now I'm told). It's more like a cold snack. It's not worth the money."

Her son also doesn't have a locker, Jeffries told the News-Times, which means he will have to carry his lunch around all day if he brings one from home.

Gaston Jr/Sr High School will have a new cafeteria by the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, thanks to a bond measure. However, in the meantime, the school has put hot lunch on hold and is only providing cold lunches.

Some parents and students have complained about the quality and quantity of the food they purchase, McKenzie said. But she said this will improve once the cafeteria is finished and that for now, they have brought in more microwaves to encourage students to bring in left overs or food from home.

"These are legitimate concerns we feel we can address with our new cafeteria," McKenzie said.

The timing of the change to a closed campus was originally set to coincide with the opening of the new cafeteria.

The switch to a closed-campus lunch has been discussed for a while with both students and parents, McKenzie said, but she believes the timing is what really came as a surprise.

"Several concerns made us think, you know it might be better for next year to be a closed campus," said McKenzie.

However, increased concerns pushed the school district to take action before next school year, she said.

"Change is hard for everyone," McKenzie said. "I've been in this community my entire life, so I know the disappointment the kids are feeling."

Jeffries told the News-Times she is frustrated with the sudden change in policy.

"There was no heads-up that this was even coming," Jeffries wrote in a message. "We got the message on 2/19, when school was closed. (The) school board voted on it without hearing anything from the public."

Due to the snow days, the meeting for parents to ask questions and give feedback on the matter was rescheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 28.

"I feel it's a bit too late and a bit backwards of doing things," Jeffries said. "They keep saying safety concerns, (but I'm) not sure what they mean by that."

Though several parents on the Facebook thread seemed to agree with Jeffries, others sided with the school district.

"100% support our school leaders on making this decision!!" Heather Mesenbrink wrote. "Our children's safety and the safety of our hardworking faculty needs to be first and foremost."

Some were torn, understanding the concerns but disappointed in the less-than-24-hour warning.

"I wish we (the parents and students) could have had a week's notice or even just one more day so instead of my son being angry that the right he has waited for his whole school career has ended (halfway) through his freshman year without any warning, he could have had one more chance to come home with his friends," said Amy Stanek. "It would have been nice to know this was coming."

For many years, students have been allowed to go off-campus for lunch once they reach the ninth grade at Gaston High.

"It's something they look forward to," McKenzie acknowledged.

Although the decision to close the campus went into effect immediately, the permanency of it is still up in the air.

"It's a board decision," said McKenzie. "But I anticipate that it will stay closed."

"Safety is always first, and there are some inconveniences and disappointment (that come) with that, but it's all with the goal to keep kids safe," McKenzie said. "We wouldn't have made this decision if that wasn't the goal."

The change to a closed campus also means changes for entry and exit at Gaston High. All doors, excluding the front, are now to remain locked at all times.

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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