What are we to make of the proliferation of smart phones in our schools? I wrote this post as a satirical exploration of the topic, although the links and quotes from experts are all real with cigarettes substituted for smart phones.
Two weeks ago my oldest daughter started middle school. She felt ready to leave behind the juvenile trappings of elementary school, which looking back seemed like a prison for children. All day in a single classroom with one teacher? Please. She was ready for the free-range eduction offered in the more mature halls of middle school.
I didn’t realize how mature those halls were until I attended “curriculum night”–a two hour tour of your child’s classes where teachers give parents the scoop on what will be taught and expected for the year. I sat through social studies and science without a problem, but then I walked into my daughter’s third period English classroom. There on the teacher’s desk was an ashtray. Not the kind of asymmetrical painted piece of junk your kid makes at camp you feel obligated to publicly display. This was a real, working ashtray containing numerous cigarette butts. It must be a prop, I thought, something the teacher is using to illustrate the dangers of smoking, or maybe he’s teaching Hemingway or The Great Gatsby. He must like to dramatize scenes for the kids.
My concerns were not alleviate when I discovered ashtrays on each of the student’s desks as well–most also containing ashes. I scanned the classroom. Were any of the other parents confused or concerned? It didn’t appear so. The teacher began his 15 minute presentation about classroom rules, homework expectations, the grading system, and his approach to meeting state reading requirements. Before he invited our questions, before I could ask why my daughter had an ashtray on her desk, it happened. Between describing the format for reading reports and the weekly vocabulary quizzes, the teacher casually took out a cigarette, lit it, and continued talking. A few parents mumbled to each other.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the teacher injected. “Please feel free to smoke as well. I encourage smoking in my classroom.”
Immediately, every parent took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket or her purse, lit up, and began dragging on it. I did my best to hold my breath, and my tongue, for the remainder of the period.
During curriculum night I discovered third period English was not the only smoke-friendly classroom. My daughter was also encouraged to smoke in her study hall, at lunchtime, and occasionally in math. I asked other 6th grade parents if they let their kids smoke at school. “Yeah,” said one mom. “We tried to keep her off cigarettes, but all of her friends were doing it so we gave in.”
“My son’s been smoking since kindergarten,” said another parent proudly. “We find it fosters hand-eye coordination and keeps him from getting bored. It’s a lifesaver in the car.”
“To be honest,” confessed one dad, “I’d really prefer my daughter didn’t smoke at school, but what are we supposed to do? She’s addicted.”
After returning home that night, I sent an email to the school principal inquiring about the smoking policy. He responded promptly, but what I read surprised me. Until recently the school district had a strict no smoking policy. Of course teachers and administrators could not prevent kids from smoking, that is a parental issue, but they did not allow it in the school building or during school hours. Lighting up was restricted to before or after school and only outside the building.
However, so many middle schoolers were addicted to cigarettes that enforcing the ban became burdensome on teachers. “We simply couldn’t discipline every student caught smoking in the cafeteria or in a bathroom,” the principal wrote.
Parents added pressure to the district to change the no smoking policy. They complained that their children were not able to concentrate in class because of nicotine withdrawal, and their kids needed access to cigarettes all day in order to function properly.
The teachers also factored into the policy debate. Some argued that smoking in class was necessary to prepare students to enter a global labor market. China and India, they said, are the fastest growing economies in the world and they smoke far more cigarettes then Americans. If our kids are going to compete in the future, they’re going to need to be comfortable in smoke filled professional environments.
These arguments met little resistance and the school board voted to lift the smoking ban. The principal explained that students are now permitted to carry cigarettes with them all day, but they may only smoke in the cafeteria and in classrooms where teachers permit it. “Cigarettes remain strictly forbidden in locker rooms,” he reported. As if that should convince me the school still takes my child’s health seriously.
“What about my daughter and other students who don’t use cigarettes at school?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Your daughter doesn’t need her own cigarettes. The teacher will provide cigarettes to any student that doesn’t have one.”
“Isn’t there a better solution to the problem?” I asked. “What about offering addicted students nicotine patches, or gum, or those smoke-free electronic cigarettes?”
“We hope students will chose those healthier products,” the principal wrote back, “but it is not our policy to restrict their choices in any way. They have unfiltered access to any smokable substance.”
“Are you telling me that students can instantly access marijuana, cocaine, crack, opium, crystal meth, and heroin at school, and that avoiding their second hand smoke will be virtually impossible for my daughter?” I couldn’t believe my own question.
“If a student is caught with any inappropriate substance they will face discipline,” the principal assured me. “But we’re not allowed to search students’ cigarette cartons or investigate what is in their cigarette or pipe, so enforcing the rule is challenging. We expect parents to teach their kids what is acceptable and safe to smoke.”
After my eye opening correspondence with the school official, I began doing more investigating online. It turns out that school districts all over the country are now adopting policies like ours. Not everyone approves. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages the use of cigarettes because of the developmental harm it causes children. One pediatrician on the board said, “Evidence suggests that regularly smoking leads to future problems in the children’s ability to concentrate.” He also said there is a strong link between exposure to smoke and ADHD. When parents or schools encourage kids to use cigarettes is also inhibits communication skills.
Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist who specializes in the effect of cigarettes on growing brains feels smoking offers no benefits to children. “All indications are that instead of increasing their intelligence, it’s going to dull it down,” she says. What’s most important for a young child’s brain development is interacting in conversation, a skill that children preoccupied with cigarettes fail to practice, she says. “It’s language, not smoking, that will later help them become physicists, scientists and imaginative computer programmers.”
Healy notes that the kind of stimulation a child’s brain receives from cigarettes is not the type that stimulates learning. In addition, cigarettes are additive which means a child will want to spend more and more time with them rather than engaging in the open-play that does foster learning and social skills. “You’re basically horsing around with your child’s brain chemistry in a way that’s not very good for him or her,” she says. Smoking often supplants face-to-face time that older children need to develop social skills, resulting in difficulty with interpersonal communication, says Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology and the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.
The argument that children need cigarettes in the classroom because exposure to smoking is critical to the 21st century workplace has also been dismissed by experts at cigarette companies. What’s the rush, they say, when learning to smoke is a quick skill to acquire? “It’s super easy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” said Mr. Eagle, a leader at the largest cigarette company in America. “We make cigarettes as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.” YouTube is full of videos of toddlers and infants smoking. Do we really need to be spending time teaching how to smoke to middler schoolers?
Beyond the mounting evidence that allowing cigarettes in school hinders learning more than it helps, there are also significant legal dangers. Stories are emerging of teens being prosecuted for distributing illegal smoking substances in their school. A poll conducted by The Associated Press and MTV found that 24 percent of teens admit to smoking illegal substances. Two 8th graders in Olympia, Washington, were taken away in handcuffs from their middle school for disseminating an illegal smoking substance. They were convicted and spent up to 36 weeks in juvenile detention. One of the 13 year old’s defended his actions by saying so many boys at the school did it that he “didn’t know it was against the law.”
It isn’t only the kids who are at risk under the new policies, but the schools as well. Mayor Bloomberg in New York City has been an outspoken critic of allowing cigarettes in schools. Despite pressure from students, parents, and teachers, Bloomberg says permitting smoking could open the city to liability if students use their cigarettes inappropriately or transmit harmful substances in their smoke. The reason is legalese: “in loco parentis.” Meaning, while students are in the care of the school system, the school is responsible to act as a parent would. That means taking all reasonable actions to ensure the safety of the child. If conditions arise that prevent a child from learning because she fears for her safety, the school is obligated to act. The circulation and availability of harmful substances in the school that results from having unfiltered and unregulated access to all kind of cigarettes, not to mention the bullying facilitated by cigarette use, means any child harmed in such an environment could sue the school for not restricting the use of cigarettes.
Finally, and most ironically, the very people responsible for flooding our culture with cigarettes understand their adverse effects on learning. It turns out the executives of America’s largest cigarette companies in California send their own children to an elite private school that bans all smoking and tobacco products. You read that correctly. Cigarette executives won’t let their own kids attend a school that allows cigarettes on campus, never mind lighting one up in a classroom. Perhaps they are taking the research conducted by scientists, researchers, and their own companies more seriously than our public school districts. The New York Times reports: “Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with cigarettes, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the smoking economy, where some parents and educators have a message: cigarettes and schools don’t mix.”
Before you conclude that I am an anti-cigarette zealot, I should tell you that my wife and I both smoke. We have cigarettes in our home, and we enjoy the numerous practical and entertaining benefits of smoking. We have not yet purchased cigarettes for our kids, but we do allow them to take a drag from one of ours from time to time–but only when we are home and always filtered. We are attempting to model for them how to use cigarettes responsibly by not smoking during family or social engagements, not smoking at restaurants, putting our cigarettes away when we come home, and by not smoking in the car. In addition, we severely limit our kids’ exposure to smoke.
I’m sure someday we will allow our kids to have their own cigarettes, but only when we have confidence they will smoke responsibly. I was hoping that we would be supported in this effort by our local school, but each year that hope diminishes as our kids’ classrooms become filled with the second hand smoke of their peers that may contain substances far more toxic to their learning than tobacco.
Maybe you think this is a non-issue. Maybe you’re more like the relaxed parents I saw on curriculum night who are unalarmed by the ashtrays, the teacher lighting up, or the school’s loose smoking policy. And maybe you still think this article is about cigarettes. If so, you should check what you’ve been smoking.
Note: All quotes and statistics from experts are accurately quoted with only “cigarettes” or “smoking” substituted for “phones,” “tablets,” or “technology.”