Neighbors of Centennial voice complaints about students' behavior

CHAMPAIGN – Louella Bishop said she's lived near Champaign Centennial High School for several years and that student behavior in her neighborhood is getting worse.

There's littering, graffiti and property damage, students eating lunch in yards, fights and intimidation, even students having sex in public, she said.

"I've lived here six years, and in six years it's gotten worse," Bishop said. "When you've got elderly people living in the neighborhood and they're afraid to come out of their homes, it's a problem."

About 50 residents showed up Sunday night to meet with school officials to discuss what can be done to improve student conduct in the neighborhood and minimize conflicts with residents.

School Superintendent Arthur Culver and Centennial Principal Judy Wiegand were among those in attendance.

Wiegand said she sent a letter to Centennial students' homes in late July indicating that students will be expected to stay on the high school campus whenever possible, and that if they leave the campus for lunch, they are not to linger in the neighborhood. Students who don't comply could face discipline, she said.

The district will also require all students to begin school at 8:15 a.m. this year, instead of allowing some to start at 9:10 a.m., leaving less opportunity for students to hang out in the neighborhood, Wiegand said.

Another change that students will notice this year is the hiring of school resource officer Ed Wachala, a Champaign police officer who will be assigned to the school. Wachala conducted Sunday's meeting and said he intends to bring about change. He is one of five officers who will be working in Champaign schools this year.

Wachala said he'll be watching for students who violate city ordinances by smoking or littering, and that he won't hesitate to take action.

"The best way to make them stop (littering) is to make them spend an hour picking up trash under my supervision," he said.

A city ordinance that prohibits underage smoking will also be enforced this year, he said.

Wachala said he will work to educate students that better conduct will be expected, and that there will be consequences for bad behavior.

"The vast majority of these kids are terrific and don't cause any problems," said Wachala. "It's a few kids with which we have problems. That doesn't mean they are bad kids."

Some audience members asked why the school district doesn't move to a closed lunch system. But Wachala said that, with 1,500 students and two lunch periods, the 350-seat cafeteria simply couldn't handle the traffic if all students were forced to stay on campus.

Not everyone was pleased with that explanation.

"Over 20 years, you would think funds could be found for a bigger cafeteria," said Brad Cronk, who lives on Holiday Drive.

Cronk also said student behavior is worsening.

"The children are becoming more defiant, more headstrong," he said. "They do things we would never dream of doing."

Wachala said after the meeting that he began working at Centennial July 5, earlier than planned, after two unrelated fights broke out on June 30 as hundreds of summer school students were leaving the building. One police officer was injured, he said.

Culver told the audience that he found the nearly two-hour meeting "eye-opening."

"I really understand the pain people are feeling and the frustration," he said. "But I don't feel it's hopeless. Ninety-five percent of the kids are good kids."

He asked audience members to volunteer to serve on smaller committees to address concerns raised during the meeting. Culver said he hoped that another meeting could be held in several weeks to see if progress is being made.

"I really believe we can solve these problems working together," he said.

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