A mass shooting at a campus far away from Upper Arlington was the impetus behind ending the local district's longstanding open-lunch policy.

After the Feb. 14 event at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students dead, Upper Arlington City Schools officials promised to conduct a safety audit of the district's buildings.

Among the issues Superintendent Paul Imhoff pledged the audit would examine was the decades-long practice of allowing students – from elementary through high school – to leave their buildings during lunch periods to walk home or elsewhere to get food or a respite from classes.

That audit was completed in June by Safeguard Risk Solutions, in conjunction with Upper Arlington's police and fire divisions. It found the open-lunch policies at the elementary and middle schools "may expose younger students to risk due to their lack of required supervision."

The report also said permitting Upper Arlington High School students to leave school during study hall and lunch periods creates "a steady flow of people in and out of the building ... making it difficult to track who is inside and outside of the building at any given time."

Subsequently, the Upper Arlington school board voted to accept the report's recommendations to end its open-lunch policy.

The new rules went into effect at elementary and middle schools at the beginning of this school year. Students in those schools who previously were allowed to leave at lunch and return to school in time for their next classes now must remain at school and eat in the cafeterias unless otherwise "checked out" by a parent or guardian.

High school plans

At Upper Arlington High School, seniors now are permitted to "opt out" of study halls that start and end the school day, effectively allowing them to forego attending first and eighth periods. All other students must stay at school during their study hall periods.

The practice of open lunch is being phased out at UAHS. Beginning this school year, freshmen must eat lunch on campus, and all other students have the option of eating lunch at school.

During the 2019-20 school year, freshmen and sophomores will be required to eat lunch at school, and the district will seek to implement an enhanced student-identification-card system that would require them to use ID cards to access and exit the high school.

In 2020-21, all freshmen, sophomores and juniors will be required to eat at school, and by 2021-22 -- when the new high school is opened -- all students will be required to eat lunch at school.

"I fully supported the decision to change our lunch policies at the elementary schools, both middle schools and our high school," school board member Robin Comfort said. "This decision for me, personally, stemmed from our safety audit and the recommendations therein.

"It is our goal to have our lunchtime in all schools be a positive, healthy opportunity for student engagement with healthy food options in a safer environment."

Comfort said the board's decision to phase in the new policy at the high school allows the district adequate time to adjust lunch serving and seating options.

"It also allows us time to adjust the food options with student input," she said.

Communications director Karen Truett said the policies for open lunches and allowing high school students to leave campus during study halls were longstanding.

However, she said district officials recognized the traditions compromised efforts to make buildings as safe as possible.

"The safety recommendations adopted in June stem from the advice of safety experts and our own local first responders," Imhoff said. "I believe these changes, particularly the increased focus on student well-being, will help us provide safer learning environments and enable us to better support the needs of all of our students, families and staff."

UAHS principal Andrew Theado said the district's first full week of requiring freshmen to eat at school went "very smoothly, thanks to some additional seating and the work of our nutrition services and building staff members."

"I also want to give credit to our students, who have been great," he said.

Comfort said the district and board took on the safety audit and enacted changes knowing they would scuttle popular traditions.

But she said students, parents and the community have reacted positively.

"Our goal is to create the safest possible learning environment for all 6,200 of our students," Comfort said.