Students Can't Smoke in School Are Teachers Next?


The move is on to ban smoking in Maryland's public schools.

Whether it will happen with or without a fight from public school employee unions will be up to how the State Board of Education handles the issue, which has landed in its lap due to the efforts of a small, but vocal band of Harford County high school students.

Should Maryland move toward a ban on smoking in public schools it would join a small but growing number of school districts nationwide, including districts in California, Texas and Montana. They either already have bans in place or have passed laws which will trigger a ban in the next several years.

It would also be in step with a joint effort by the American Cancer Society and the National Education Association to make schools nationwide smoke free by the year 2000.

Kellie Knight, a 16-year-old Fallston High School student, is among the leaders of the crusade launched this past spring to have smoking by teachers and other school employees banned in Harford public schools.

Ms. Knight and the other students argued to the county school board that the practice creates a health risk for students breathing so-called secondary smoke and allows a double standard to exist. Students are banned from smoking in Maryland schools; school employees are not.

The Harford school board didn't ban smoking by school employees in school owned buildings, claiming it was hamstrung by a 1988 State Board of Education ruling. That ruling stated that smoking by school employees was a "work condition" that must be negotiated in labor contracts.

But the Harford board did agree the students had a strong point and has since taken the crusade statewide, eliciting support from members of other county school boards who want the State Board of Education to issue a statewide ban on smoking in public schools.

The Harford school board and other supporters of a ban argue that so much new information has been brought to the fore about the health risks of so-called secondary smoke that the state school board should reverse the ruling.

But the state school board declined to act after its lawyer, Valerie V. Cloutier, said that the board legally couldn't do that without a "live case" on which to base a new ruling on the issue.

That live case might surface this fall when the Harford County school board goes to the bargaining table with school employee unions to negotiate new work contracts.

The Harford school board has vowed to tell union negotiators this fall that the right to smoke in schools must be removed from labor contracts and that it plans not to back down on the issue.

The Harford County Teachers Association, the bargaining agent for public school teachers in the county, has been mute whether it would fight the ban. If it did, it would create the "live case" Ms. Cloutier says the state board needs to reconsider its 1988 ruling. That ruling resulted when teachers in Frederick County grieved a Frederick County school board ban on smoking in school buildings.

Then again, Harford may find that school employees won't fight the smoking ban request, says Catherine Burch, chairman of the Prince Georges County school board, citing the recent experience of her board.

The board successfully negotiated a new work contract with school employees recently that will ban smoking all school buildings Sept. 1, 1992 -- the first public school system in the state do to so.

Ms. Burch, a former smoker who quit after finding out she had lung cancer, says that when the school board presented its arguments about health risks to the employee unions, they were hard pressed to debate the issue as a civil right.

Even if Harford school employees don't fight the school board's effort to ban smoking in schools, Ms. Burch and some Harford school board members want the issue taken up by the State Board of Education.

State Board of Education action on the issue could come before Harford teachers and school board go to the bargaining table.

At the Maryland Association of Boards of Education convention in Baltimore this past week, a resolution floated by the Harford school board passed 37 to 14. The resolution calls on the State Board of Education to "prohibit smoking in public school facilities."

Anne Sterling, the Harford school board member who helped draft the resolution, says if the State Board of Education heeds the resolution, it could ban smoking in schools by simply adding a new regulation to the many safety and health regulations it has for the public schools.

"Our feeling is that the evidence that passive smoking and secondary smoke is a clear health risk is so convincing that we have to fight for a ban as long as it takes," says Ms. Sterling.

"The kids are right. By allowing teachers and other school employees to smoke in our schools, we're placing their future health at risk. The students are in these buildings for years and years, and the cumulative effect of breathing secondary smoke for that period of time is worrisome."

Robert C. Embry, Jr, president of the State Board of Education, agrees that, theoretically at least, the state board probably could issue such a new regulation. But he's not so sure he'd be inclined to do so without first hearing some arguments on both sides of the issue.

The reason for that, he says, is his philosophy about smoking.

Mr. Embry appears to see the issue as one shaped around civil rights than strictly health concerns.

"I don't smoke, and I don't like smoking. But I'm not so sure I should be telling someone else that they can't smoke."

Kellie Knight and the other Fallston students, though, argue that it's the students' right to clean air that is at issue.

"Why should I and other students be placed at risk of lung cancer or some other smoke-related disease while we are at school? A lot of governments and corporations have banned smoking in their work places because of the health risks to non-smokers. It's strange that a place that has hundreds of kids in it a day, wouldn't do the same thing."

The risks of breathing secondary smoke in schools is a worry shared by many non-smoking teachers and school administrators, says Keith Williams, a member of the Harford school board. He says he's been approached by many school employees who support the board's effort to ban smoking.

The concerns about secondary smoke are backed up by considerable scientific research.

In 1990, a panel of scientists said that second-hand cigarette smoke should be declared a known cause of cancer and that workplace policies should reflect that hazard.

The panel was concurring with two Environmental Protection Agency reports which concluded that secondary smoke causes

an estimated 3,800 cases of cancer annually among non-smokers.

And, a 1986 surgeon general's report on the health consequences of involuntary smoking backs up the students' concern about smoke toxins being circulated throughout schools. The report notes that because sidestream smoke particulates are so small, they tend to travel rapidly with the flow of air streams created by ventilation systems. "As a result, the simple separation of smokers and non-smokers within the same airspace will reduce but not eliminate exposure to environmental tobacco smoke," the report stated.

Aside for the health risk argument, supporters of a ban on smoking in schools are using these other arguments:

* Double standard: In Maryland, public school students are not allowed to smoke inside school buildings. Students caught doing so are punished and can be suspended. But teachers and other school employees can smoke. Not only can they smoke in school buildings, the "right" to do so is often guaranteed in labor contracts.

Supporters of the ban argue that this dichotomy sets a double standard and sends a confusing message to students.

* Drug free school zone: Perhaps the most radical argument the Fallston students have used in their plea has been that smoking is already banned in school buildings under the drug-free school zone policy. They argue that nicotine in cigarettes has been shown by medical research to be addictive and therefore is a drug.

* Teachers as good role models for students: Students generally look to teachers as adult role models and often try to emulate their behavior. Seeing teachers and school principals smoking sends students the message that smoking is an acceptable and healthy habit.

This "role model" argument was one of the reasons Montana and some California and Texas school districts have mandated public schools ban all smoking in school owned buildings.

Bans are in effect now in some districts in Montana, in Dallas and Houston, Texas and in several large school districts in California, such as Sacramento. The trend is spreading statewide in Texas, say school administrators there.

In California all public school districts must have smoking bans in place by 1996 or face a cutoff of state funds, says William A. White, Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Education coordinator at the California State Department of Education.

"Just about everybody here has seen this as a health issue, not a civil rights issue. Appropriate adult role models are very important to a successful health education program," says Mr. White.

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