The Other 60 Percent

Illegal tobacco sales to youth on the increase

It hardly mattered to Danielle Anders that all Colorado schools are, by law, tobacco-free zones, and have been since 1994. She’d been smoking since she was 11 years old, and she knew where to go on campus to puff in peace.

“Honestly, I never got caught,” said Anders, 18, who is now nearly one-month into her self-imposed regimen for kicking the habit. “People weren’t really watching that much. And teenagers are a lot smarter than people think we are.”

Sneakier, yes. But smarter?

Across the nation, the number of high school smokers – which had increased during the 1990s, then decreased significantly until 2003 – seems to be leveling off, according to a report issued last month by the Centers for Disease Control.

As of 2009, 46.3 percent of teens report ever having smoked, and 19.5 percent say they currently smoke. That’s down from 70.4 and 34.8 percent, respectively, in 1999. In 2003, those numbers had fallen to 58.4 and 21.9. So while the numbers are still going down, the decrease has slowed.

Teen-age smoking in Colorado does appear to have continued a sharp decline, with the percentage of students in grades 6-12 who have ever smoked falling from 31.7 percent in 2006 down to 27.2 percent in 2008, according to a state health department survey of more than 21,000 students at 140 Colorado schools.

What’s more, the number of high school students who currently smoke stood at 11.9 percent, down from 14.6 percent two years earlier.

But not all is clear on the tobacco-free horizon in Colorado.

Budget cuts, underage sales are potent mix

The continued drop-off in teen smoking in the state is due in large measure to Colorado’s concerted effort to fund tobacco prevention and smoking cessation programs for all ages.

In 2005, a statewide cigarette tax increase pumped $27 million a year into such programs, and Colorado was widely viewed as a national leader in anti-smoking efforts.

But last year’s state budget woes meant that anti-smoking budgets got cut. State spending on tobacco prevention efforts will be just $11.1 million in 2010, down from $26.4 million in 2009, which places Colorado 21st among the states, down from ninth.

Even before the budget cuts, ominous smoky signs were in the air:

  • The number of middle school smokers remained about the same, 2.7 percent in 2008, up from 2.6 percent in 2006.
  • The average number of cigarettes smoked per day did not decrease.
  • The percentage of high school smokers who at least tried to quit declined dramatically, from 63.2 percent in 2006 to 51.7 percent in 2008.
  • The number of underage smokers who were illegally sold cigarettes when they tried to buy them was up significantly, from 47.9 percent in 2006 to 60.7 percent in 2008.

“Like every other state in the nation, we have a law that requires clerks to check IDs when someone under 30 tries to purchase tobacco,” said Celeste Schoenthaler, director of youth and young adult initiatives for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “But about half the kids who smoke tell us they’re not being asked for ID.”

When tobacco looks cool, tastes like candy

What’s more, tobacco companies keep rolling out new products that seem especially designed to attract young users. Products like:

Camel No. 9, with its pink and black packaging, is particularly attractive to teen-age girls.

“That’s totally targeting teen-agers,” said Anders. “It’s so you can share it with a friend. Adults don’t really share cigarettes because they can afford to smoke their own. But youth will pool their money and share a pack. So if you like menthol and your friend doesn’t, you can each have half the way you like it.”

“And Camel No. 9, a black box with a pink stripe around it – how cool is that?” she asked. “Of course it’s for teenagers. It doesn’t even look like a pack of cigarettes. It could be a pack of gum.”

Anders knows these things because she’s hung out outside the gas stations where these things are sold  – usually right next to the candy bars – and either bought them herself or asked friendly adults to buy them for her.

“I’ve always smoked menthols,” she said. “That’s what I like. I never really cared for the strawberry-flavored stuff.”

Anders attended high schools in Broomfield and Thornton before dropping out in January 2009. She later earned her GED and went on to attain a certificate in early childhood education from Front Range Community College.

From teen smoker to teen adviser on health council

Today, she’s the youth representative to a stakeholder group that the health department convened over the summer to begin looking into the problem of illegal tobacco sales, and how to combat them. The group spent time listening to Anders and other teens talk about why and how they smoke, despite the barriers school and health officials have erected.

“Cigarettes are still a huge issue. They pose the greatest danger,” Schoenthaler said. “Our data tell us youth are also using smokeless tobacco and cigars at pretty high rates. And some of these newer products are like starter products because they’re easier to handle than starting with a cigarette.

These nicotine candies dissolve in the mouth.

“But they become addicted to the nicotine. Some of these products contain more nicotine that cigarettes do, and they come in flavors like mint. The health effects of those products are unknown at this point. But the kids tell us you start with those, then move on.”

One project that some school officials are especially excited about is a new web-based tobacco education curriculum entitled Second Chance, which debuted in January but is just now being heavily marketed to school districts. It was developed by the Rocky Mountain Center for Health Promotion and Education, a Lakewood organization, through a grant from the State Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership.

The curriculum, which is free for schools or courts, targets youngsters who get caught using tobacco on campus, in violation of state law. While punishments may vary at the discretion of the principal, tobacco violations can be grounds for suspension. The Second Chance curriculum, which is self-paced and can take anywhere from one to three hours to complete, is a more palatable option for many offenders.

“We’re trying to keep youth in school, and districts wanted an alternative to suspension,” said Laurie Schneider, the Second Chance project director for RMC. “That’s why this was developed. It’s self-paced and can be accessed from any computer, so a school administrator doesn’t have to sit with a student while they go through the program.”

But school officials can still remotely monitor a student’s progress through the curriculum.

Jeffco among school districts adopting Second Chance

The program, which was designed by curriculum specialists, health educators and graphic designers specifically to address Colorado laws, is interactive. More than simply reminding them of the legal and academic consequences they face if caught using tobacco, youngsters are invited to assess the role tobacco plays in their lives.

The Second Chance curriculum targets teens who face punishment for breaking school tobacco policies.

They’re invited to weigh the cost of cigarettes against other highly-desired purchases. They’re asked to assess whether quitting smoking would make them more or less popular among peers. They’re reminded that tobacco is the only consumer product that kills if used as directed. And they’re asked to assess the ways tobacco companies lure teens into using their products.

Amy Dillon, Healthy Schools Coordinator for the Jefferson County school district, said the district spent a great deal of time assessing the Second Chance curriculum before deciding to adopt it.

“In a district our size, we wanted to go through all the checks and balances,” she said. “That’s why we haven’t done a big unveiling of this program yet, but we feel like there’s a lot of value in this program, so that students who haven’t been in compliance with the tobacco policy can have a more educational approach as opposed to something punitive.”

During the 2008-09 school year, the last year for which numbers are currently available, 103 Jefferson County students were suspended for tobacco violations, a district spokeswoman said. The year before, there were 131 such suspensions.

Yet nobody likes suspending kids for smoking: “Especially since tobacco is addictive. You just don’t want to suspend them for that,” Schoenthaler said.

‘You don’t think it will happen to you…until it does’

Unfortunately, like other tobacco education programs, the Rocky Mountain Center’s funding was cut this year, so there will be no funding to drive the Second Chance curriculum after Oct. 31. That’s why RMC is pushing the program hard between now and then, to let school officials know that it will continue to exist, even if no more funding becomes available.

Learn more

“So far, we’ve had great feedback,” Schneider said. “People are saying this is just what they needed. Other non-punitive enforcement strategies are sorely lacking. Second Chance is the only program like this in the country, and we’ve heard from a number of other states who are interested and wanting to explore how it could be modified for use elsewhere.”

Anders, for her part, isn’t sure she would have taken advantage of Second Chance had she been given the choice of that or suspension. She hated school, but she loved smoking.

“But not all youth are like that,” she said. “There are youth out there who do want to change.”

Anders, whose parents and sister all smoke, said stopping has not been easy.

“Honestly, you have to be self-motivated,” she said. “You hear about lung cancer. My grandma has lung cancer. My uncle died of emphysema. You hear about all that, but you don’t think it will happen to you. It’s like getting pregnant. You don’t think it will happen to you … until it does.”

That’s what happened to Anders. Her daughter will turn 2 in December.

“I smoked the whole time I was pregnant,” she said. “I wanted to quit, but some crazy stuff happened. Then my daughter was diagnosed with asthma at 5 months old. I feel responsible for that.”

Anders is now living in a group home for teen-age mothers where smoking is not permitted.

“Since I can’t smoke when I want to now, honestly I don’t enjoy it any more. It’s more of a hassle,” she said. “I didn’t have to use a patch or anything to quit. I had three cigarettes left and I just decided that, when they were gone, I wouldn’t buy any more after that.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

How I Help

Students were obsessed with social media. Here’s what this middle school counselor did about it.

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Students at Eagle Valley Middle School in western Colorado were spending lots of time on social media, and too often their comments turned mean. Counselor Kayleen Schweitzer decided things needed to change, so last year she spearheaded a schoolwide campaign urging students, staff and parents to take a five-day break from social media. More than 150 people signed the pledge.

The results were encouraging. Participating students reported that they had more free time and were getting to bed earlier. Some even said the break made them realize they had been addicted to social media.

Schweitzer, who was named 2018 Middle School Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about how campaign organizers got students to participate, what she wants parents to know about middle-schoolers, and why she wants students to regard visiting a counselor as normal.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

When I was 15, I lost my father. It was very unexpected and I found out at school. When I returned to school no one checked on me or followed up to see if I was doing OK. I remember wishing I had more support at school. That was the first time I realized that one day I wanted to be someone who could be there for students going through a hard time or transition.

When I was in college my favorite classes had to do with child development. I went on to pursue a degree in family and human services and a graduate degree in school counseling. I’m definitely happy with my decision to be a school counselor and I look forward to going to work every day.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

In the 2016-17 school year, my principal Katie Jarnot and I identified a need for something that would help with some of the conflicts occurring at our school. Katie came across a national program called No Place For Hate. It was just what we were looking for. In the 2017-18 school year, we brought No Place For Hate to our school. It has been amazing and powerful.

We noticed a lot of mean behavior on social media and that our students were spending so much time online. Also, with a surge of recent research into the detrimental effects of screen time, social media, and the correlation to depression and anxiety, it was clear there needed to be a change. So Eagle Valley Middle School’s No Place for Hate Coalition created a schoolwide activity that attempted to give students, staff, and parents a glimpse into positives that can come from limiting social media use and taking back control of our lives. We asked our school community to commit to giving up social media for five days.

During those five days, everyone who took the pledge was asked to do a daily reflection on the differences that they noticed. We offered a chance to win prizes as an incentive. To our surprise, we had 110 students (about one-third of our school), 18 staff, and 30 parents sign up.

Though not everyone completed the five days, we felt we brought some awareness to this problem. Students noticed how much more time they had when not using social media and they were able to get to bed earlier. Some actually admitted this activity helped them realize that they are addicted to social media. A few parents reported they were able to be more present with their family at night and have fewer distractions.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

The tool I couldn’t live without is Google forms. Students can fill out a form to let me know they need to see me. When they fill out the form it notifies me with an email and I can see who is requesting to see me. It also allows me to keep data on what issues my students need support with. This helps me plan what supports I need to put in place through classroom guidance lessons, small groups, and individual counseling.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

The biggest misconception I have encountered is that it’s a bad thing to go to the school counselor and that you need to have a huge problem. I have noticed that some middle school students are embarrassed to be seen going to the school counselor. I have worked really hard to make it normal to come to me and teach them that the strongest, most successful people need help sometimes.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would remind parents that students’ frontal lobes are not fully developed and when they say they don’t know why they did something, they are probably being honest. I would also let them know that even if a student says they want parents to give them space and leave them alone, it’s not really what they want or need.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I have a student who is now in eighth grade and has been coming to see me on a regular basis when she needs support. As a sixth-grader, she was so closed off and worried about being seen coming to talk to me. I have been very consistent with her and kept reminding her that I’m always here if she needs anything. I ended up running a group with her and a lot of her friends. She saw that her friends loved coming to see me and were willing to talk to work through some of their problems. I also spent time with her and showed her it was a safe place to talk. Over time she broke down her walls and was able to trust me. Today, she stops by when she is doing well and when she is struggling. She loves to come and eat lunch with me. She has grown so much and I’m going to miss her dearly when she goes to high school.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is going home and worrying about my students. You always wish you could do more or make students see things can get better and they are enough. Middle school is such a hard time for students as they struggle to find where they fit in and deal with personal changes.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my first years as a school counselor, I had a student who was consistently falling asleep in class and missing a ton of school. When I had a meeting with his family, I found out that his mother was a single mom and his grandma, who also lived in the house, was very sick. The student was staying home to help take care of his grandma and his siblings so his mom could work and make money for the family. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of rehab.

I realized that different cultures have unique values and priorities. It also taught me that you never know what someone is going through so we need to really take time to talk to kids to figure out what is happening in their personal lives before jumping to conclusions.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

The way I wind down after a stressful day is to come home and spend time with my children. They are still young and innocent. I try to really enjoy this precious time with them when they have fewer worries and just want to have fun. I also love spending time with friends and clearing my mind of the worries of my job. Last, I enjoy catching up with email and work-related tasks as every time I scratch out something on my to-do list I seem to get stress relief.

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.