Health agency, schools join to nip student smoking in bud

Effort aims to reduce use, not just discipline kids

December 17, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

The Carroll County school system plans to change the way it handles student tobacco violations, modifying a regulation that has been around for more than 15 years.

While some Board of Education members expressed concerns last week, others praised the move to try something new in an effort to reduce tobacco use among students, not just discipline them.

The regulation changes, which would have the district team up with the county Health Department, would save the school system money, while also providing additional opportunities to follow up with - and, ideally, reach - second-time offenders, said Dana Falls, director of student services, in an interview.

"It is more comprehensive," Falls said.

Under the old program, he added, a second violation resulted in suspension. The Health Department program "really gives us another layer of education. ... The goal is hopefully to motivate them to quit smoking."

Before, parents of students caught violating the tobacco policy for the first time could choose between a three-day suspension or the district's smoking-education program.

That program consisted of a 4.5-hour Saturday class that drew information from the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society, as well as health and science teachers, Falls said.

Now students will be assigned to the Health Department's seven-hour tobacco education program, which is research-based and used nationally, said Barbara White, of the county Health Department. Second-time offenders would also be assigned to another education program.

The Health Department would pay for the classes through a grant, made possible through cigarette restitution funds, Falls said. That would also save the county from paying a teacher under the district's Saturday program.

Students will be suspended if they do not complete the class, according to the modifications. The classes would be held two Saturdays a month.

"Our stance on tobacco in schools has not changed," Falls said in a later interview. "This is not a softer approach. It is just more of an educational approach."

Board member Barbara Shreeve said she was concerned about grant money running out, making the switch futile down the road.

Falls said the district could easily pick up where it left off with the Saturday class if that happened.

Cynthia Foley, newly elected as board vice president on Wednesday, questioned the need for changing the program, and expressed discomfort with "handing our discipline" to the Health Department.

Foley also said the board lacked proof that the Health Department program was more effective than the school system's.

Falls emphasized that success mostly came in the form of reducing school suspensions, not decreasing tobacco use. Changing the regulation was not simply about punishment.

"They have an addiction that needs to be addressed," Falls said.

Falls said in an interview that he knew from teaching the class that students usually leave with a greater understanding of tobacco, but not necessarily with changed behavior.

Tom Zirpoli, an education professor at McDaniel College, said more lessons on what tobacco does to one's body would probably help.

"My general feeling is that the more you educate kids about things, the better, because then they can make choices based upon fact and not myth," Zirpoli said.

Superintendent Charles I. Ecker and board member Thomas Hiltz pointed to another potentially positive result of the changes: Parents would have to contact the Health Department to register their child - a requirement that could engender more parental engagement in student activities.

Hiltz agreed. "I see a lot of positive things here," he said, also observing that education and deterring smoking should be the goals.

Gary Bauer, who was elected board president, closed the issue.

"Let's give it a try," Bauer said, "see what happens."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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