Gray ashes litter the white porcelain sinks. A lipstick-stained cigarette butt lies on a toilet seat. A crumpled Marlboro package floats in a urinal.
These are the remnants of another typical day in the restrooms of Centennial High School, the not-so-secret smoking lounges of students. Many nonsmokers say the smoke gets so bad that they avoid entering the restrooms.
In a county known for the strictest anti-smoking laws on the East Coast, it's often easier to smoke in Howard's high schools than in its restaurants and office buildings -- even though state law and Howard policy prohibit smoking on school grounds.
But a group of students, teachers and parents at Centennial wants to halt the restroom misuse.
"It's pretty disgusting with all of the smoke and everything," said Centennial senior Dave Johnson, 17. "When I have to go in, I try to hold my breath."
Saying that the restrooms ought to be available to everyone, the group plans to go to the county school board next month and ask for tougher penalties for students caught smoking inside Howard schools.
"You shouldn't wind up smelling like an ashtray every time you go into the bathroom," said Centennial senior Alifia Poonawala, 17. "You're never going to stop everyone from smoking, but maybe we can at least clear the smoke out of the bathroom."
One teacher switched classrooms to escape the smoke from the restrooms across the hall.
Students, parents and teachers at the school formed the group called Students Opposed to Smoking about 18 months ago. They surveyed students and held class discussions about ways to make the restrooms smoke-free.
After considering such ideas as propping open restroom doors, they decided the penalty for first-time violators should be harsher than those in effect at most Howard high schools. The anti-smoking group proposed suspensions, smoking-cessation classes and bathroom clean-up duty.
Howard's policy calls for a mandatory parent conference for a first offense, with the student attending either detention or a smoking-cessation class. Most choose detention.
It's typically not until the third violation that a student is suspended or county police are called.
Those penalties are more lenient than in some nearby school systems, the Centennial group found. For example, in Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, students are required after a first offense to attend smoking-cessation classes or risk suspension, while Montgomery County smokers may be suspended for up to three days for a first offense.
To report a student for smoking, Howard teachers and administrators must see them with a lighted cigarette -- a tougher proposition in restrooms than outdoors.
"When students are smoking in a bathroom, there's usually a lookout at the door who warns them to flush their cigarettes when a teacher or administrator walks in," said Melissa Eckes, who says she's among the students who try to avoid using the bathroom until they get home from school.
"When a teacher walks in, the bathroom still is full of smoke, but no one has any lit cigarettes. So they suspect everyone, but they can't really get anyone in trouble," Eckes said.
For many teachers and administrators, it's a frustrating battle to keep smoke out of the restrooms, particularly when students face fairly light penalties for the first two offenses.
"We've got lots of other things to be doing during the five minutes between periods when students usually are smoking, so you aren't real motivated to try to crack down on smoking when you know the students will get off lightly," said physics teacher Stan Eisenstein.
The group hopes a harsher penalty will encourage teachers to patrol the restrooms and discourage students from smoking in them.
"I think that if we make the penalty real harsh for students who smoke indoors, it'll send them someplace else if they really want to smoke," Eckes said. "It's kind of logical -- you won't smoke in the bathroom if you know you're going to have to clean up the butts in the toilet when you get caught."
No one knows exactly how many students regularly smoke inside Centennial or other high schools. Most students estimate that it's a small number -- likely fewer than 100 in each county high school.
Toughening the penalty for first offenses indoors seems to have broad support among teachers, administrators and nonsmoking students at Centennial -- nearly everyone but smokers.
Last week, the county's PTA Council voted to support the Centennial group's proposal. Poonawala, who is the student associate member of the Howard school board, plans to seek support from student governments at other high schools.
The smoking situation isn't quite so bad at all Howard high schools. For example, teachers at Glenelg High School seem to have cut down on smoking through a concerted effort this year to monitor the restrooms closely.
Similarly, at Atholton High School, administrators have mixed tough enforcement with incentives, including giving students an occasional 10-minute break before the end of a school day after a month of smoke-free restrooms.
Other schools have tried locking restrooms to control access or asking students to report those who smoke in restrooms.
But smoking remains a big problem in the high schools, said Eugene Streagle, the county's instructional director who specializes in high schools.
"There's really no easy answer, because if a kid is determined enough, he or she will find a way to smoke," Streagle said.
"I feel badly for the nonsmokers who want to use the bathroom and find it full of smoke."
Streagle said he wasn't sure that suspending students for a first offense was the best solution, saying it seems too harsh a penalty.
Still, he agreed with the Centennial group that it was worth taking another look at the smoking policy's penalties, particularly because a school system task force is studying student behavior and suspensions. It is due to report to the school board in the spring -- a time when the board could also consider the smoking committee's proposal.
Members of the Centennial student group say suspensions aren't essential. They just think the penalty for a first offense should be toughened in some way to deter smokers from taking over the restrooms.
"We know they're going to smoke if they want to smoke," Poonawala said. "But maybe we can make the penalty so harsh that at least they'll do it some place other than the bathrooms. I hope we can work with the school board to find out what the best penalty would be."
Pub Date: 1/12/97