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Health committee calls for tobacco-free Pasco schools

When workers at any Pasco County school that opened before July 1996 crave a tobacco fix, all they need to do is step outside to a designated area and puff away.

The district's Health Advisory Committee wants to end that practice.

The group, composed primarily of community health care professionals, has unanimously called on the School Board to change its policy allowing older schools to avoid the tobacco-free designation that newer campuses operate under.

"In order to send messages to our youth that are consistent with current tobacco prevention curriculum, maintaining positive adult role models for students is critical," the committee wrote. "Additionally, students should not be exposed to secondhand smoke at any level."

It's not a new message. The board held a workshop on the concept in August 2011, and heard from some passionate Students Working Against Tobacco members this past June.

"We want 100 percent tobacco-free schools," student Andrew Gonzalez told the board. "If teachers still want to smoke they should go off campus, or schools should help them to quit."

The district's employee contracts stand in the way, though.

According to the agreements, a pre-1996 school can go tobacco-free only with the unanimous vote of the employees there. The district has no record of any requested votes in the 17 years since the rule took effect.

"One teacher can prevent the wishes of all the other teachers from being realized," said board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong, who sits on the advisory committee. "That is something that is going to have to be negotiated."

District and United School Employees of Pasco officials met Monday to talk about amending the contract.

"We are looking at having discussions now rather than waiting for contract negotiations to reopen in the summer," employee relations director Betsy Kuhn said.

USEP leaders did not return calls seeking comment.

Kuhn suggested that the chance to update the practice appeared good, given the changes in attitudes toward smoking since 1996. Several districts have moved to eliminate employee tobacco use on campuses. Some, including Pasco, have even tried to stop hiring tobacco users.

Pasco dropped that concept after finding it unworkable in its food and nutrition department.

Kuhn noted that Pasco's advisory committee gave plenty of reasons to consider a new direction for tobacco-free workplaces.

"They're not just work sites," she said. "They're schools."

Not all School Board members are as enthusiastic as Armstrong.

"I'd rather see an incentive approach for our employees," vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. "Then your outcome is they might quit smoking, which is what we want."

Board member Steve Luikart, a former assistant principal, said he would be hesitant to have the district enter this debate.

"I know it's a health issue. I understand the reasoning behind it," Luikart said. "But where does it stop? … Are we going to check lunch boxes? Are we going to have them weigh in every morning? … I'm not one who wants to dictate what adults do."

The health advisory committee does not weigh in often. Its most recent high-profile effort led to the placement of defibrillators in district buildings.

This time, the group is asking that the contract be changed so only a majority of a school's employees must support having their buildings go tobacco free.

Armstrong said she believed the time was right.

"The push is out there to set a better example for our students, to make our employees more healthy," she said. "We need to pursue it."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Health committee calls for tobacco-free Pasco schools 10/29/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 7:49pm]
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