Student lights up in car outside school, ignites furor over anti-smoking law

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jason D'Anna, a 17-year-old honors student at Dulaney High School, jumped into his Honda on the school parking lot, cranked up the radio, lighted a Marlboro Light and headed for his after-school job at a country store.

He was on the edge of the lot, about to turn into Padonia Road after the first day of school Thursday, when William Zepp, an assistant principal, knocked on his window and informed him he had violated not only a Baltimore County school system regulation, but also a Maryland state law.

What happened next, according to his parents, was a nightmare.

Anna D'Anna, Jason's mother, said Mr. Zepp and the school principal, Thomas Hensley, threatened to have her son arrested by Baltimore County police if he would not attend a weekend smoking-cessation class or accept a one-day suspension.

She said officials cited a new and little-known Maryland statute -- which doesn't actually take effect until Oct. 1 -- that makes it illegal for anyone under 18 to use or possess tobacco products. That means cigarettes, cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco.

Once the law is enforceable, minors caught smoking or carrying tobacco can be given police citations and be fined up to $25 for the first offense and up to $100 for subsequent offenses.

Mr. Hensley "said he was offering the anti-smoking course or suspension instead of calling the police," said Mrs. D'Anna. "He said Jason was engaged in criminal activity and said he was cutting him a break. They were being the nicotine Nazis."

Not so, Mr. Hensley said yesterday, but he refused to discuss the matter in detail. Charles Herndon, spokesman for Baltimore County schools, denied that officials threatened to call police, "although they could have."

Several other parents said that at preschool orientation sessions last week, Mr. Hensley specifically warned them that students could be arrested if they were caught smoking.

The incident on the opening day of classes not only spotlighted the new law, but also prompted debate on students' rights, smokers' rights, privacy issues and what some parents and law enforcement officials saw as a heavy-handed approach to a relatively minor problem.

It also brought expressions of concern from police and prosecutors already swamped by violent crime.

Sgt. Steven R. Doarnberger, a county police spokesman, said the department would prefer the school system to handle smoking outside the criminal justice system but would enforce the law if the school officials insisted.

City police were not particularly happy with the law, either.

"A minor carrying a cigarette is not high on our priority list," said Sam Ringgold, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. "Besides, the law increases the risk of confrontation between officers and juveniles, many of whom already have bad impressions of law enforcement."

A Maryland State Police spokesman, Lt. Gregory M. Shipley, said his agency was also aware of the smoking law. "At this point, our priority is violent crime," he said.

Jason D'Anna, president of Dulaney's chapter of the Future Business Leaders of America, was pulled from class yesterday and told that he must attend a three-hour smoking-cessation clinic Sept. 24 or be suspended for one day.

"I work after school and on Saturdays," the teen-ager said. "I really think this is excessive, because lots of other illegal things go on at the high school. If I don't go to the anti-smoking class, I'll be suspended Monday."

"I wish my sons didn't smoke, and I understand the school regulations," said Jason's father, Richard. "But the way they handled it was too stern, an overreaction."

At the orientation last week, Mr. Hensley said students who smoked "could be arrested," said Helen Karamalakos, who has two children at Dulaney and supports the policy. "He said it was a brand new law and that police would be called before parents. And he should. . . . It should scare the students."

Others disagreed. "I would be terribly upset if it were my child," said parent Becky Pauliny.

Mr. Herndon said Baltimore County students caught with tobacco products do face suspension on their second violation if they do not attending the anti-smoking class. He said officials invoked the severe penalty because Jason, now a senior, was caught smoking three years ago, when he was a freshman.

"The student lit up a cigarette in front of an assistant principal," said Mr. Herndon. "We gave him options, the class or suspension. We apprised him we could call the Cockeysville precinct."

Mr. Herndon also said school officials are permitted to search students' lockers, backpacks and personal vehicles parked on school property if a student informer tells them a student has a pack of cigarettes, chewing tobacco or snuff.

"We do not have to have probable cause like the police," Mr. Herndon said.

Sergeant Doarnberger said Mr. Hensley discussed the incident with Capt. John Gaither, commander of the Cockeysville precinct, the day of the incident.

"It came up, and what Captain Gaither told Mr. Hensley was that he prefer the school to handle smoking discipline. But if they call us, we are bound to uphold the law," he said.

Sergeant Doarnberger said that if a minor disagrees with an officer and refuses to sign the citation, "it is an arrestable offense."

Howard Merker, deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County, called the law "an extreme piece of legislation. It's difficult to enforce. . . . an effort to legislate health."

Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and a strong opponent of tobacco use, said, "If this bill gets the attention of young people not to smoke, then I'm for it."

Bruce C. Bereano, lobbyist for the tobacco industry and champion of smokers' rights, said he was offended by the incident. "Give me the case; I'll defend this kid pro bono," he said.

"To suggest this student be arrested is an insult to police. . . . They are out getting drug traffickers and armed robbers. . . . This is Big Brotherism at its height."

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