Students once were allowed to smoke in “the pit”
By Caroline Peplinski, Current Staff
Most days, the West Bend High Schools’ courtyard sits empty and silent. However, that wasn’t always the case.
Due to changed rules and building additions, the courtyard is now enclosed on all four sides. When the campus originally opened in 1970, though, the courtyard was exposed to Decorah Road. For two decades the area was a scene of bustling student activity and known notoriously as “the pit.” It was open for students to hang out, eat lunch or even take a smoke break.
“When I went to school here, this was a smoking area outside,” recalls Ralph Schlass, a 1990 East graduate who now serves as principal of West High School. “It was not enclosed, obviously, you were not in an enclosed space, but there was an overhang so you had a roof above you and anybody who wanted to smoke could go out there.”
Of course, this sort of behavior has been left in the past. Also gone are the days when students were free to come and go into the courtyard during lunch periods or off hours.
“When I went to school, we had the Mod system with an open campus,” said Jayne Peplinski, a 1978 East graduate who still lives in the community. “Each Mod was twenty minutes so some classes could be two Mods, could be three Mods, and then you’d have Mods off in between. A lot of kids at that time would go out into that pit. I remember it being open all the time because of the Mod system, so if you had 20 minutes off you could go out there and hang out for 20 minutes. It was always kind of an open policy.”
The West Bend High Schools currently operate under a more conventional scheduling system and also maintain a closed campus. In addition, the courtyard is not open to unaccompanied students. Despite this, Schlass says the space is frequently used.
“It’s available to anybody who wants to go out there with their clubs or co-curriculars and so we’ve seen various groups out there after school besides the classes we see during the day,” Schlass said.
While there is opportunity to utilize the courtyard, current students have expressed desire for a more open policy concerning the area. Many aren’t aware that the courtyard is available for use (accompanied by teachers) and wish it could be utilized more as a place to take a break from the school day.
“The fresh air always wakes me up,” East ninth grader Anja Lanser said. “I’ll be struggling to keep my eyes open while in school, but the moment I stand outside for even just a few minutes, I feel so much more awake and able to focus. So if we were able to go outside, it would help the people that struggle in the still and dry air in the school.”
Lanser thinks the courtyard could bring relief to stressed students, and according to former WBHS students, that’s exactly what it used to do.
“It was a nice area, especially to go out there and get some fresh air and a different view,” Peplinski said.
Jenny Gutknecht, a 1997 East graduate, also recalled time in the courtyard as a welcome break.
“(It was) just nice to get outside after lunch instead of being cooped up in the building all day,” Gutknecht said.
However, a return to a more open courtyard isn’t currently in the cards. There are multiple reasons for this decision. Supervision in the space, according to Schlass, is especially key.
“We don’t have any plans right now (for reopening) simply because we just don’t have the adult supervision that would be necessary to make sure that it’s a safe space for students to go in during lunch,” Schlass said. “I know students like to go outside during the day, but, again, it’s got to be done under the supervision of adults otherwise it can be unsafe.”
This is why teachers or club advisers must accompany students in the area, especially now when health concerns are even higher than normal.
“We ask teachers that do that to make sure that students in this COVID time are masked up and socially distanced,” Schlass said.
Another concern that comes along with students in the courtyard is noise. Prior to the 1990s, the courtyard was more open and noise was less likely to resonate and cause a distraction.
“It’s like an echo chamber in there,” Schlass said. “It gets really loud and teachers that have classrooms around the area did not particularly care for that space being used during the lunch hours. If your windows are open and students are out there, even with a class you’d hear that noise. Now multiply that by about three to four times as many students.”
Increased misbehavior is also a worry that accompanies granting students more freedom and independence.
“You’ve got some students that don’t treat things with the respect others do without supervision, it’s so difficult,” said Schlass.
Disrespect to property and vandalism especially could pose a potential problem if the courtyard was fully reopened. Schlass recalled specific times in the past when there was expensive damage to the area.
“When we allowed people out here, that place was getting bombarded with stones,” Schlass said. “People were throwing things off of there and they destroyed the facade, we had to pay thousands of dollars to get that fixed. One time somebody spray painted over there.”
Former students provide a contrasting recollection of their time in the courtyard.
“I don’t remember really any problems out there, any fights or any of that,” Peplinski said. “Just goofing around. Maybe stuff was happening, it just wasn’t as up front.”
Sara Hafeman, who graduated from East in 1982, recalled things similarly.
“I don’t remember any vandalism,” she said. “That wasn’t a big thing back then.”
Though Schlass didn’t recall exactly when the availability of the courtyard was changed, the majority of concerns intensified during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I don’t remember vandalizing (happening) in the courtyard but I do remember people trying to smoke without getting caught,” Gutknecht said. “Some also tried to sneak off to their cars without being noticed.”
Despite all the issues that might come along with use of it, current students see the courtyard’s potential as an enjoyable social area and believe individuals would appreciate an ability to utilize the area.
“I don’t think people would misbehave, I think they would respect the opportunity to use the courtyard,” East sophomore Fiona Shaw said.
While the administration still plans to maintain the current policy concerning courtyard availability, Schlass recognizes the desire to use the space and enjoys seeing groups do so when the safety of students and property is ensured.
“I encourage teachers to come out here with their students when it’s warm,” Schlass said. “I’d like to see the space get used more.”
(Contemporary photos of the WBHS courtyard are by Caroline Peplinski, Current Staff. Archival images are from the 1975-1976 and 1977-1978 WBHS yearbooks.)