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.

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“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.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.