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Wednesday, July 15, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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School Smoking Not Quite Snuffed Lawmakers Want To Close Loophole That Lets Students Smoke

(From For the Record, February 12, 1997): Washington state law forbids anyone under age 18 to obtain tobacco products. A front page article in Saturday’s newspaper gave the incorrect age.

Tempers flare along with cigarette lighters when students at Mead High hear state lawmakers want to shut down high school smoking areas.

They’ll smoke anyway, the indignant students vow, huddling against the cold on a corner of the school grounds fenced in just for them. They’ll smoke in school bathrooms, in cars, across the street.

The consensus is clear: They treasure their outdoor smoking parlor.

But asked their names, the students look as if they’ve been asked to dance barefoot on red-hot cigarette butts.

“My mom will kill me if she finds out I’m out here!”

“My dad would sell both my trucks.”

“I’d be grounded for life.”

“My parents are kind of against the smoking corner,” says Angela Srock, 15, among the few who offer their names.

With bills aimed at ending school-sanctioned smoking sections, lawmakers are stoking an emotional debate that pits schools against parents and health workers.

In Eastern Washington, where hundreds of kids arrive at school early for a morning smoke under the watchful eye of school administrators, the controversy is boiling.

Inside classrooms, teachers outline the risks of lung cancer. Outside, they patrol smoking sections.

Laws forbid youths under 16 from obtaining tobacco, yet educators provide a place for them to use it.

Even principals who forbid tobacco on school grounds shimmy through loopholes in the law by supervising smokers on bordering public property.

“It happens in almost every school around,” says Linda Jackson, who coordinates an anti-smoking program at the Spokane Regional Health District. “They use every inch of the law they can. It’s a real dilemma.”

Mead Principal Mick Miller and other administrators worry a total smoking ban on school property would boost drop-out rates and truancy and spark fights with school neighbors.

They predict “administrative nightmares” that would force them to waste teaching time tracking down student smokers.

Besides, says Miller, “I don’t think we’ll stop teenage smoking by saying you can’t smoke anywhere near a school.”

A 1991 law already bans tobacco from school grounds. Schools with smoking sections credit a line allowing exemptions “with regard to alternative education programs.”

Since most schools have some sort of alternative program, they have an easy loophole, says Sharlynn Rima, youth tobacco prevention coordinator for the regional health district.

“We got the idea from some of the other schools in the Spokane area that had created smoking areas on campus,” says Jerry Knott, principal at Cheney High. “They found that loophole.”

Last year, Cheney school board members approved a smoking section near a former football stadium, which is supervised by an assistant principal.

Not an ideal situation, says Knott. But it pacifies the school’s neighbors, who complained dozens of smoking teenagers were blocking public roadways, littering their property and even lowering its value.

Now the neighbors are happier, and so are students.

But policies like Cheney’s prompted lawmakers, led by state Rep. John Koster, R-Monroe, to sponsor a bill that removes the alternative program exemption.

It requires schools to prohibit the use of tobacco, post warning signs, and punish kids who violate the policy.

Koster says he generally supports more local control and fewer state mandates, but schools forced his hand by violating the law’s intent and setting double standards. “We tell the kids tobacco’s no good, but here’s the place you can smoke.”

House Education Committee members approved the bill with an 11-0 vote, but it hasn’t yet gone to the full House.

“Legislation is the easy piece,” says Gary Livingston, Spokane School District 81 superintendent. “Enforcement is the issue.”

Some Spokane high schools allow smoking next to campuses, where administrators can keep an eye on students. At Shadle Park High, principals watch students smoke in a city park next door. North Central smokers light up in front of the school on a public sidewalk.

A tougher anti-smoking law could force large high schools to hire more supervisors, Livingston says.

He also suspects parents would lose their enthusiasm for a tobacco ban once teenagers were expelled and suspended for smoking.

Even if the bill fails, educators expect they’ll continue grappling with the emotional, divisive issue.

Educators who established a smoking section at West Valley High, for instance, are now asking school board members to remove it.

That decision came after “fairly vehement” pressure from parents and an opinion-gathering mission by the school debate team, says Principal Cleve Penberthy.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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