Bus shelter used as teen smoking room
Craving nicotine and banned from smoking on school property, some high school students cross the road and gather in a bus shelter that has become something of a casual smoking room.
The smoking by students so close to the school generated a Letter to the Editor in The Times on Dec. 22, from Ted Dewing of Chappaquiddick, who questioned the appropriateness and legality of the practice.
Mr. Dewing called it "ridiculous" that high school students were using the bus shelter as "a smoking room." Moreover, Mr. Dewing said the police are "a block down the road," in reference to a police officer in a patrol car regularly stationed near the school to monitor traffic speed.
The bus shelter offers teen smokers an unobtrusive hangout. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Seven students responded to Mr. Dewing's observations in a letter published in today's issue of The Times (see Page 16). They wrote, "...the smoking is not done on school property." The police presence down the street, they wrote, "has nothing to do with the fact because we're not doing anything illegal."
At the bus shelter last Thursday around noon, a Times reporter discussed the issue with two female students and one male student smoking inside the shelter. A third female student present was not smoking. Outside near the blinking traffic light beyond the shelter, another male student was smoking.
The three smokers in the shelter identified themselves as students at the Rebecca Amos Institute, an alternative learning program separate from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). When asked about being allowed to leave school grounds during the day, they said the rules at the Amos Institute are not the same as those at the high school.
The nonsmoker, an MVRHS student finished with classes for the day, said her school does not allow students to leave the campus during school hours. She added that "teachers have been cracking down more in school" in catching smokers, and they randomly check the bus shelter.
Peg Regan, MVRHS principal, said, "We have been fortunate we don't have a lot of smoking in the building, but we do have a problem with kids going across the street to the bus shelter." She said she would prefer a shelter that was less enclosed and more visible from the high school.
"Our school policy is that students are not supposed to leave the campus grounds and not supposed to smoke during the school day," said Ms. Regan. "The bigger issue for us is really the addiction. We work with kids that have that addiction to try to help them get through the day without a cigarette."
The three student smokers in the shelter last week said they were part of the group who signed the letter to The Times. "It's not like we're smoking something worse - it's just cigarettes," one girl said.
The students explained that since smoking is prohibited on school grounds, they are allowed to leave for five-minute smoking breaks at the bus shelter. They said they were told not to smoke in the nearby skate park, however.
Katherine Kavanagh, director of the Rebecca Amos Institute, confirmed that the students are not breaking school rules by leaving the grounds to smoke. "We have an open classroom policy. The students' parents sign off for the students' rights to come and go as they please. When they are off-campus, they have their parents' permission to be so."
Ms. Kavanagh said the students get a 10-minute break between classes and face consequences if they are tardy from their smoking forays. Regarding Mr. Dewing's remarks, Ms. Kavanagh said, "The characterization that was implied in the letter is that these kids are losers, and it's not the case. They are very responsible in the midst of making this interesting choice to smoke."
Describing herself as an "adamant non-smoker," Ms. Kavanagh said that acknowledging that the students smoke does not mean she endorses it. "We do educate our students about the harmful consequences of smoking," she said, with lessons driven home by a visit from a lung cancer patient who shared his experiences with them.
In talking with the student smokers last week, they took pride in the fact that they clean the bus shelter every Friday, at Ms. Kavanagh's insistence, sweeping the floor and emptying a bucket they keep inside for their cigarette butts. Pointing to some areas on the walls sprayed with black paint, the students said their shelter maintenance also includes covering over profane graffiti.
The bus shelter is owned by the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA), which leases the land is it on from the high school. "The Federal law is that there is no smoking allowed on buses, but as far as the bus shelters go, there is no rule against smoking inside of one, because they are all out in the open air," said Lauren Thomas, VTA office manager.
Although the VTA has tried posting no-smoking signs inside shelters, Ms. Thomas said, "They get ripped down in about two days."
The students are correct in asserting that their smoking is not illegal, according to Bob Collett, director of the Cape Cod regional tobacco control program. In what he termed "a somewhat strange twist of the law in Massachusetts," Mr. Collett said that while it is illegal to sell cigarettes to someone under age 18, it is not illegal for an underage person to possess them.
When asked how they buy cigarettes as underage minors, the teen smokers at the shelter smiled and said they don't, because Vineyard retailers are strict about checking ID's.
In a random compliance check of all of the tobacco retailers on the Island about a month ago, Mr. Collett said the Island towns "performed very well, with only one illegal sale." He checked all of the retailers by sending in two 15-year-old girls who attempted to buy cigarettes. Store clerks are supposed to check identification for anyone that appears to be under 27 years old.
The teen smokers interviewed admitted they ask someone 18 or older to purchase their cigarettes for them. "There are been attempts in the Massachusetts legislature to increase the legal tobacco purchase age to 19, which would eliminate 18-year-olds that are still in high school buying cigarettes for their friends, but it has not gone anywhere," said Mr. Collett. However, he added, "It should be noted that smoking rates among youth are way, way down from what they once were. The daily use for youth right now is at about 18 percent."
Results from the 20054-2005 Martha's Vineyard Youth Risk Behavior Survey released in November showed that 83 percent of high school students do not smoke. The rate of students smoking dropped from 30 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005.