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Giving Teens a Level of Freedom

Taking a Look at Hanover High School’s Open Campus Policy

  • Hanover High School, as seen from the sidewalk on Lebanon Street on Sept. 13, 2007. (Valley News - Nicholas Richer)

    Hanover High School, as seen from the sidewalk on Lebanon Street on Sept. 13, 2007. (Valley News - Nicholas Richer)

  • Hanover High School students Libby DeLucia, 17, of Norwich, Jackson Womack, 18, of Hanover, and Josh Typrowicz-Cohen, 18, of Norwich, leave the Co-op food store in Hanover with snacks during their free morning period on May 5, 2005. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hanover High School students Libby DeLucia, 17, of Norwich, Jackson Womack, 18, of Hanover, and Josh Typrowicz-Cohen, 18, of Norwich, leave the Co-op food store in Hanover with snacks during their free morning period on May 5, 2005. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

  • Hanover High School, as seen from the sidewalk on Lebanon Street on Sept. 13, 2007. (Valley News - Nicholas Richer)
  • Hanover High School students Libby DeLucia, 17, of Norwich, Jackson Womack, 18, of Hanover, and Josh Typrowicz-Cohen, 18, of Norwich, leave the Co-op food store in Hanover with snacks during their free morning period on May 5, 2005. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Hanover — Stop by the Hanover Co-op around noon on a weekday during the school year and you will be confronted with a familiar sight: a flood of teenagers chatting and laughing with friends as they roam the aisles in search of lunch. You may have seen them and asked yourself, “Are these kids allowed to be out of school?”

The answer is yes.

Hanover High School has an open campus policy, which means that students in grades 10 through 12 may leave school property during their free periods. If that strikes you as newfangled and permissive — something that surely would never have flown back when you were in school — it is worth noting that Hanover High has maintained an open campus for 41 years.

“It’s certainly one of the things that makes the school what it is,” said Ian Smith, Hanover High’s dean of students. “Schools are reflections of the community as a whole, and I think Hanover is a community that values openness, trust and respect.”

Other Upper Valley high schools have similar policies. At Lebanon High School, for example, 11th- and 12th-graders in good academic standing are permitted to leave campus for their free periods, according to Assistant Principal Gina Moylan.

However, Hanover High’s policy is unique for several reasons, including the visible presence of students in town, off-campus privileges being extended to 10th-graders, and the participation of students in creating and maintaining the open campus policy.

“Our school has a democratic process for making policy decisions,” Smith said. “Every year, the question of the open campus policy is debated, and every year, students and the School Board agree to keep the policy in place.”

This includes not extending open campus to ninth-graders.

“Most students agree that ninth-graders need a year to adjust to high school before taking on the responsibility of open campus,” Smith said, adding that the students’ involvement in making the open campus policy gives them more ownership over their choices.

Every fall, Hanover High holds an informational meeting for parents of new 10th-graders, said Smith. Parents then decide whether to grant their child permission to leave the school campus. Students who do have permission must sign out every time they leave or enter the building, and open campus privileges can be revoked if students don’t use them wisely.

While going into town or to the Co-op to purchase lunch is the most common and visible way students take advantage of the open-campus policy, there are many other uses for it as well. They can also use the time — known as an “X period,” when they do not have a scheduled class — for studying, club activities or meeting with their teachers.

“The open campus policy helps make it possible for students to take advantage of the many educational opportunities in this area,” said Smith, who said some Hanover High students take classes at Dartmouth.

Mason McNulty, a rising senior, said she often uses free periods to meet with tutors. “With a break in my schedule around the end of the day, I’m able to check out of school so that I can go to the Howe Library for tutoring, and then walk back in time for my last period class.”

Alexi Kim, also a rising senior, said she used free periods for physical therapy appointments at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to recover from a torn knee ligament she suffered while playing soccer last fall.

“Right after surgery I was leaving school two to three times a week during last period, so I could still make it back to soccer practice with my team after school,” she said.

Some reasons for leaving campus are simpler, though still important.

“It’ll be nice to have more choices for lunch than just cafeteria food,” said Jensen Dodge, a rising sophomore who will be eligible for open campus privileges this fall. “But more than that, I’m looking forward to just being able to get out of the building and walk. I’m really active, and sometimes it’s hard to be inside all day. I think taking a break for some fresh air and exercise will help me focus better on the rest of my day.”

Some have raised concerns about the policy. Occasionally, a student can wind up with two or even three free periods in a row, and having a teenager set loose for that amount of time makes some parents nervous. What if a student is injured or otherwise harmed while out of the building?

“Our first concern is student safety,” said Smith. “The sign-out sheets are necessary to keep track of where each student is at a given time. Unfortunately, there are several exits from the building, and students do not always take the time to go through the sign-out procedure.”

Kim said some of her classmates don’t take safety procedures as seriously as they should. “Signing out seems unimportant if you’re just walking across the street to the Co-op. However, no matter where you’re going — the Co-op, home, wherever — it’s very important for both safety and liability reasons for students to sign out.”

Hanover Chief of Police Charlie Dennis offered another reason for keeping track of students: “If there were to be an incident at the school in which lives were in danger, it would be a security problem if there were students unaccounted for.”

Smith said the administration is working on ways to improve the sign-out procedure, including giving the students a stronger role in enforcing the rule. “We’re trying to give students the opportunity to learn to make responsible decisions, while still ensuring their safety. It’s a delicate balance at times,” he said.

Other parents are more concerned that the freedom of an open campus could lead to drinking, drug use and other risky behaviors during the school day, although Dennis said Hanover police see no increase in problems during the hours that most students take advantage of the policy.

“It’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of students do use open campus well,” said SAU 70 Superintendent Frank Bass.

Kim, the rising senior, said people may think teenagers get into trouble when unsupervised, but most do not. “If we focused on how many kids do not drink or smoke, instead of the amount of kids who do, more kids would realize that the majority do not.”

Smith, the dean of students, said such behavior is not influenced by open campus policies, and said these problems occur at schools with closed campuses, as well.

Dodge, the rising sophomore, agreed. “The kind of kid who’s going to drink or do drugs at school isn’t going to be stopped by not having open campus.”

Kim said parents and school administrators have the power to decide that a student is not ready for the responsibility. Open campus “is a privilege and not a right. It can be taken away or never given in the first place.”

Administrators and students alike said the rewards of open campus are worth the risks.

“In some schools with closed campuses, a lot of energy and resources have to be diverted to enforcing it,” Smith said. “Kids will sneak out of the building, which leads to more time studying security camera footage and less time focusing on instruction and preparing kids to be competent adults.”

Students see the open-campus policy as more than a just a perk. “Off campus is a time for students to gain independence and grow,” said Kim. “This growth may be in time management, social skills, money-saving skills or safety understanding. Hanover is a safe and great town for these skills to grow in.”

Former students who have already made the transition to adulthood offer some perspective on the policy. Two years after their graduation, Smith said, former Hanover High students take a survey about their experience at the school.

“Many of our graduates point to open campus, and with it the opportunity to practice making good choices in a safe environment, as the aspect of Hanover High that best prepared them for college and beyond.”