The Haywood County School Board will vote next month whether to adopt the ban. Passage appears likely based on discussion among school board members at a board meeting last week (Feb. 16).
The school board has managed to dodge the controversial issue for several years. A tobacco ban has been introduced before but was ferreted into committee for further study and never resolved. It has cropped up as a campaign issue for school board candidates the past two elections.
The kicker in previous debates usually boiled down to football games, which attract thousands of ticket-buying spectators which help provide funding for all sports programs. Other athletic events — softball, soccer, basketball and the like — have also been a concern.
But this time, an appeal directly from Tuscola High School students is forcing the school board to address the issue.
“By exposing (students’) minds to harmful substances such as tobacco, what kind of role models are we being?” Candace Pullium, a freshman at Tuscola, posed to school board members at their meeting last week. “You have the position to change hundreds of lives by setting an example by what you do — not just what you say.”
Pullium said it is not uncommon to see students who are under 18 — the legal age for buying and using tobacco — either smoking or chewing on the school grounds.
Paige Jones, a freshman at Tuscola, joined in the appeal.
“We aren’t asking adults to stop using. We are just asking them to stop using at school,” Jones said. “We are just trying to make our school a healthier environment for everybody. It is our right to breathe clean air, and by having people smoke at school events and at school is not giving us that right.”
An audience member questioned why the policy would apply to weekend events unrelated to students, like the Haywood County Cattlemen’s Association Chili Cook-Off held every year at Tuscola High School.
“If they don’t want to heed to that they can go somewhere else with their business,” replied Walt Leatherwood, school board member. “We have to protect the kids. That’s my job. If you watch the kids come off the campus today, before they get out the gate they are smoking.”
Since the policy applies to any school event — on or off campus — it would also apply to high school graduation ceremonies held at Western Carolina University.
Don Smart, a tobacco grower, told the school board a policy banning adults from using a legal product goes too far.
“We think you can accommodate kids and people who use tobacco,” Smart said. “If it needs to be changed, it should be through education not through the restriction of adult activities on school property.”
Smart reminded the school board that tobacco is a major contributor to the economy.
“Tobacco pays the bill and puts the jingle in the pocket,” Smart said. Restricting the adult use of tobacco is a further slap to farmers who are struggling to hold onto land in the face of development, Smart said. Smart said farms are dying and there’s “a new row crop called houses.”
“A developer is a legal rapist the way some of the land is disappearing,” Smart said.
But school board members said they had to put the health of students first.
“I don’t know that you will never be 100 percent tobacco free. There is always somebody off to the side smoking or dipping,” said Michael Sorrels, school board member. “I think it is the intent — what you are trying to show the kids.”
School board member Johnny Woody said only a handful will purposely thwart the policy.
“The majority of the people will honor and respect the policies set by the board,” Woody said.