Soon, Howard County teachers may no longer be able to hid in janitors' closets or faculty lounges to get their nicotine fix, and parents may not be able to light up in the stands during athletic games.
The school board is considering a proposal that would ban smoking and the sale of tobacco products anywhere on school grounds. School employees who are caught smoking would be required to meet with their supervisor to review the policy and could be referred to smoking-cessation classes.
Die-hard smokers are fuming.
"I don't want to be overly dramatic, but it becomes sort of like the witch hunt of the '90s," said Geri Willis, media specialist at Wilde Lake High School. "Since they can't solve the rest of the problems in society, they can get rid of smokers."
The proposal also has raised concerns in the teachers union, which is afraid that the school system will not provide enough support for smokers who want to quit. Union officials plan to testify at the board's public hearing June 10, offering suggestions on implementing programs.
"Smoking is certainly a habit, and people are addicted to tobacco," said James Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association. "I would hope the board would do everything possible to assist employees to kick the habit."
The proposal, which would take effect next school year, extends to groups that rent rooms in schools or people who visit the school. First-time violators would be issued a verbal warning. They will be asked to leave the premises if they continue, and they will be given a no-trespass letter on the third offense.
"Our whole objective is to provide an environment that is conducive to learning," said Reva Bryant, the schools' director of human resources, citing the hazards of second-hand smoke. "We think this is one way to ensure the safety of our employees and our children."
The proposal comes on the heels of the state Board of Education's decision last year to ban smoking in school buildings 24 hours a day and on school property during school hours. Each county was allowed to define "school hours," and Howard construed that as meaning any time, Ms. Bryant said.
The school board will vote on the matter June 24.
"There have been many times when I'm in schools -- particularly high schools -- and I go into the bathroom, and the smoke just chokes you," said Susan Cook, board vice chairwoman. "It's just awful. There are so many of our students who do not smoke, and they may have the same reaction as I have."
A smoking ban would be tough on teachers, but smoking isn't good for them anyway, Ms. Cook said.
Ms. Willis predicts that imposing a ban would cause smoking teachers to put in less time on the job, because they'd have to leave school property to light up. "Smoking is considered the worst offense that anyone can do, including drinking and drugs," she said. "Smokers think nonsmokers have over-reacted."
"Nonsmokers don't have any bans on them," said a 20-year smoker and teacher at Worthington Elementary School who didn't want to be identified. "Why should we have them? It's like all of a sudden, we have a plague and we have to be put in separate places. It's like gays in the military -- like they've never been there before."
Schools aren't the only places to go smoke-free. The Mall in Columbia recently banned smoking -- to much uproar -- and County Councilman C. Vernon Gray proposed a bill last month that would require restaurants seating 50 or more people to provide a nonsmoking area for at least 75 percent of the restaurant. The current law has no percentage requirement and only applies to restaurants seating 75 people or more.
Although students haven't been allowed to smoke on school property for years, some are nonetheless upset at the proposed ban.
"Once you turn 18, if you want to smoke, it's your life, it's your lungs," said Howard Gross, an 18-year-old Mount Hebron High School student. "If you're old enough to be drafted, if you're old enough to vote, you're old enough to decide to smoke."
Some teachers say the smoking ban may help them kick the habit. "I've been beating back and forth in my mind anyway [to quit]," said Mac Green, a history teacher at Howard High School who sneaks in a few smokes during school hours.
"It may well encourage me to make it a permanent thing," he
said. "As far as the inveterate smoker is concerned, I don't think it will convince them to stop."
Now, teachers go to their cars and drive around the neighborhood to smoke during their free time, Mr. Green says.
Others say they understand what the school system is trying to achieve and will comply. "At first, I thought it was discrimination in a way," said Debbie Hartsell, teacher's secretary at Forest Ridge Elementary School in Laurel who smokes once or twice during school hours.
"But you have to think of the children, and that's why they're doing this," she said. "If a child is allergic to smoke, even though I'm not smoking in the office, the smoke may be on me and he could have a reaction to it."