Students seek tough policy on smoking School board is asked to stiffen penalties

March 14, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

It's not often that students ask the Howard County school board for tougher penalties for a violation of the rules.

But last night, a group of Centennial High School students -- joined by parents, teachers and administrators -- urged the board to toughen its anti-smoking policy.

Board members praised the students' efforts but were reluctant to embrace their call for severe penalties.

In their presentation to the board, the students charged that although it is a violation of state law and county policy, it is often easier to smoke in high schools than in county offices or restaurants, and the penalty is less severe.

"The smoke in the restrooms is a serious problem at Centennial and other high schools in Howard County," said senior Melissa Eckes. "Students complain of having to inhale smoke, having smoke cling to their clothing, having to look at cigarette butts clogging the urinals and sometimes having to endure intimidation."

The students asked the board to toughen penalties for students caught smoking in restrooms, including making suspensions and smoking-cessation classes mandatory for a first offense. They also wanted principals to be allowed to assign smokers to clean up cigarette butts in bathrooms and hallways.

The school system'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. Typically, it is not until the third violation that a student is suspended or police are called.

"Since it is more difficult to get caught smoking inside the lavatories and since such activity affects the health of not only the smoker, but of the entire school population, a much greater penalty should be incurred for smoking inside the building," said Centennial senior Dave Johnson.

The proposal was supported by Centennial's Students Opposed Smoking committee, the student governments there and at River Hill High School, the county chapter of the American Cancer Society and the Howard County PTA Council.

Johnson also asked the board to improve the ventilation in at least two restrooms in every county high school to ensure that hTC nonsmoking students have restrooms that are free of secondhand smoke.

More lenient than most

The Centennial students and parents pointed out that for a county known for having the strictest anti-smoking laws on the East Coast, the school system's policy tends to be more lenient than most others.

For example, in Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, students are required to attend smoking-cessation classes or risk suspensions after a first offense, while in Montgomery County, smokers may be suspended for up to three days for a first offense. The penalty at Bel Air High School in Harford County is a five-day suspension for the first violation, Centennial students said.

'Long overdue'

"The school board is long overdue in implementing a policy up to the standards of not only the rest of Howard County's public buildings, but [those needed] for the health of students," said Judy Habib, the mother of a Centennial junior.

Board members -- none of whom could remember the last time a group of students asked for a tougher penalty for violation of a school policy -- said they were sympathetic but feared that toughening the smoking penalty would dramatically increase the number of students who appeal suspensions to the board.

'Balancing act'

There is a "balancing act by folks like us between not only the health of students but their academic achievement," said board member Karen Campbell. Parents often appeal to the board "not [to] be overly quick to suspend students from access to that education."

Board members also suggested that the students search for other ways to curb smoking in restrooms. They said Atholton High School has been successful with a mix of tough enforcement and incentives for students to keep restrooms smoke-free.

But the board promised the Centennial students that they will ask education officials to find more ways to eliminate smoking in restrooms.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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