Smoking teacher fumes over 'Nicotine Nazis' He claims tobacco ban is discriminatory

May 31, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Richard C. Walker, a social studies teacher at North Harford High School who smokes, is fired up about the school board's ban on tobacco use in all Harford public schools and school-owned buildings come July 1.

He's so upset he now calls the six-member Board of Education "Nicotine Nazis."

Walker is among those school employees who charge that the board did not seek out the views of smokers before passing the ban.

To Walker, the school board was "mean-spirited and discriminatory" when it voted unanimously to ban all tobacco use inside school buildings and vehicles.

"The school board is bigoted. None of them are smokers," Walker said. "It is distinctly a majority picking on a minority.

"They are singling me out just like the Nazis did Jews. But instead of calling me Jew . . . they are calling me a smoker. Instead of making me wear a Star of David on my chest, why don't they make me wear a cigarette?" he said.

Jim Mason, a journalism teacher at North Harford, said the school board should have at least discussed the smoking ban with the teachers.

"No one requested any information from us. They didn't ask for any feedback, they didn't offer us any stop-smoking classes. It was just 'boom,' that's the way it is," Mason said.

But Anne Sterling, vice president of the Board of Education, said the school board did talk to many teachers on an informal basis. "We really did hear from teachers. They had every opportunity to talk to us. We are always open to telephone calls and letters from them."

Sterling said smoking cessation programs will be available in the fall as part of the "wellness programs" offered through the teachers' fringe benefit packages. There will probably be a fee for the program, she said.

"Healthy teachers are happy teachers," she said.

Sterling said a smoking cessation program offered two years ago attracted five teachers, two of whom quit smoking. Last year, the same program had no takers.

"We expect renewed interest in the fall because of the smoking )) ban," she said.

The ban makes Harford the first county school system in Maryland to bar all tobacco use in buildings and vehicles. Prince George's County has adopted a tobacco ban in its schools, but it does not take effect until September.

Students are already banned from smoking or chewing tobacco in schools.

At least some Harford County teachers in the county's 44 public schools will still be able to smoke in outside areas to be designated by school Superintendent Ray R. Keech.

But Keech has said he will only establish outside smoking areas if they would be fairly unnoticeable. Teachers are role models, he said, and should not be seen smoking by students.

"I didn't become a teacher to be a role model," responds Walker, a teacher for 23 years.

Walker said the decision to smoke is a personal one and that no one should have the right to dictate what he does in his private life.

The smoking ban was initiated by students at Fallston High School who argued that second-hand smoke is a health hazard that in some cases aggravates health problems, such as asthma.

Walker doesn't buy that argument. If students are so concerned about the environment, he said, "let them ride the bus instead of driving their cars to school."

He said the health hazards from the carbon monoxide emitted by school buses and cars are more dangerous to students -- and to him -- then fumes from cigarettes.

At North Harford High School, as in many other schools in the county, there are faculty lounges for smokers and non-smokers.

The smoking lounge at North Harford is bright, airy and well-ventilated and located right next door to the equally attractive non-smoking lounge.

During the lunch break there recently, smokers were outnumbered by non-smokers, who said they use that lounge to socialize.

Terry Suddath, a horticulture teacher, is a non-smoker but usually eats in the smoking lounge. "I think it is absolutely ridiculous. I can see the non-smokers' point, that they don't want to eat around people who smoke, but there are separate lounges," she said.

A few non-smoking teachers hurry into the smoking lounge and quickly grab their lunch from the refrigerator -- the refrigerator in the non-smoking lounge is broken -- and scurry back to the non-smoking lounge next door. But several non-smoking teachers said they didn't object to their colleagues puffing away in the room next door.

Sandy Schlehr, an art teacher, said she has a right to not be exposed to secondhand smoke. But, she said: "I feel the system here works," referring to the two separate lounges.

Henry Hirschmann, a computer science and programming teacher, said colleagues lighting up in the room next door "does not bother me." He said he is more concerned about students seeing teachers smoke outside.

"With the current system, students can't see teachers smoke," he said.

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