The clanging of the lunch bell used to mean more to Andy Lyle than just a midday break with friends in the school cafeteria.
"It was a time when lunch was not considered," the Yorktown High School senior and former drug user recently told the Arlington School Board. "We used to save our lunch money for drugs and go out and do 'em at lunch time."
Arlington officials and parents contend that Lyle's former lunch-time habits are not uncommon among county teen-agers. They say the liberal policies that allow the county's high school students to leave the school grounds during the lunch hour and miss each of their classes up to 10 times a year without academic penalty are significant factors in teen-age crime and drug and alcohol abuse.
Critics say that these policies, similar to those in Alexandria, Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax County school systems, make it easy for teen-agers who are eager to exploit such liberties, or are too immature to handle them, to get into trouble during school hours.
But the parents of some of Arlington's top students oppose ending the so-called "open campus" policies, while spokesmen for other area school systems insist that their open campus policies have not become an issue.
Parents whose children have gotten into trouble from having so much time on their hands, as well as the commonwealth's attorney, the Arlington police chief, and residents whose lawns are often turned into picnic grounds, have called for a crackdown. The Arlington School Board recently asked the superintendent to draw up a closed-campus plan that could go into effect in the next school year.
"All of those problems, and what I see in court, are what compelled me to ask the School Board to abolish the open campus as quickly as possible," said Commonwealth's Attorney Henry E. Hudson.
Much of the impetus for changing Arlington's school policies grows from these findings reported by county drug and alcohol abuse counselors and police:
Eighty-eight percent of Arlington high school students referred for drug counseling admit that they cut classes in order to drink beer or smoke marijuana.
Sixty percent of all daytime residential burglaries in Arlington are committed by juveniles.
Fifty percent of the disruptions that occur in Arlington high schools after the lunch hour involve students who have used drugs or alcohol.
Up to 50 high school students every day are late in returning to school after the lunch period, or fail to return at all.
Some opponents of the policy say that the open campus is too much of a temptation for many youngsters.
"My daughter learned within the first week of high school the fine art of skipping," recalled Gregory Bell, parent of a 15-year-old freshman at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School. "When they tell you everybody does it, they're telling the truth."
Residents of neighborhoods near the county's three high schools complain that the youngsters roam their neighborhoods on school days, littering their yards with beer bottles and sandwich and candy wrappers.
"The nicer the day, the worse the trash," says Susan Fitzgerald, who lives one block away from Washington-Lee High School.
Residents charge that students also "hot-rod" up and down the streets in everything from tow trucks to Toyotas.
"You have to watch out for all the cars flying down the street," Washington-Lee freshman Telly Sigros said last week as a 1979 Thunderbird roared past him in the school parking lot during a lunch period.
Sigros also said that it is not unusual to see students eating their lunch on the porches of residents who are not at home.
"I wouldn't want to live around here," Sigros continued, "People throw trash on your lawn and mess with your dog."
Other parents, as well as some school administrators and many students, criticize attempts to close campuses.
"The closed campus sounds as if schools are undertaking a policy of keeping young people off the street and out of trouble," says Richard Buffum, parent of a Yorktown High School senior and a probable candidate for the County Board this fall. "The policy of schools should be education."
His son, Frank Buffum, editor of Yorktown's student newspaper, said that the vast majority of students do not get in trouble during their free time.
"I don't doubt there are some problems," he says. "But I don't think it's worth jailing everybody for."
Jim Schollaert, the parent of a Washington-Lee High School student, disagrees.
"A lot of these people are parents of honor roll students who don't have a problem," Schollaert says. "They don't understand the plight of the parents of more average kids. Class disruptions don't occur in the advanced placement class."
Although the critics of open campuses acknowledge that the causes of drug and alcohol abuse and crime are complicated, they claim that keeping the students in school will keep them out of trouble, at least for a while. Bernard Murphy, the county drug and alcohol counselor, says that keeping the youngsters on the campus "eliminates at least seven hours when kids don't have the opportunity to get into trouble . . . .All I know is, the kids I talk to leave school to get high."
When the first lunch bell rings at 10:20 a.m. at Washington-Lee, it marks the beginning of two consecutive lunch periods during which 1,600 students dash out of their classes and can either eat in a cafeteria that is able to serve 1,200 a day or else leave the school grounds, ostensibly to have lunch elsewhere.
School officials estimate that more than half of the students leave the grounds, including many who do not have the parental permission slips that are supposed to be required.
"See all those cars out there?" Washington-Lee's assistant principal, James Crawley, said last week, pointing to a school parking lot. "Most of them belong to students. They're very mobile."
Priscilla Flory's 14-year-old daughter is going to lose credits for two and possibly three courses this year because she skipped each one more than the permitted 10 times.
"The liberality of the policy was too much for her to handle," Flory said. "There are lots of children in the same position."
Last fall, when Alexandria secondary schools introduced a similar policy of automatically failing students in any class that they miss more than 10 times, more than 700 failing grades were given. Comparable figures for Arlington were not available.
"When I was doing drugs, my attitude towards the policy was, 'Hey, that's 10 free days I got to do anything I want,' " Lyle recalled at his recent meeting with school officials and parents. "I could say to my friends: 'I've got five unexcused absences left in fourth-period class, so let's go party after lunch, let's go get high.' "
Lyle, who says he has not used drugs in two years, insists that open campuses should be closed.
Sgt. David Tooley, an Arlington policeman who specializes in youth problems, said that abolishing the open campus privilege would be the best way to control many youngsters who now are largely out of control.
"It'll be easier to monitor," Tooley says. "If we see them out there, we'll know they're not supposed to be."
Tooley, Washington-Lee Class of '59, has been on both sides of this issue. He said that he once was suspended for several days because he had cut classes.
"The kids are the same today," he says. "They just have more freedom and take advantage of it. I don't blame them. I would have, too."