Manatee students press for tobacco-free district

MANATEE -- Armed with statistics that show 90 percent of cigarette smokers start before age 18, a group of Lee Middle School students is pressing the Manatee school board to declare all of the county's schools "tobacco-free" campuses.

The policy would mean that teachers and school visitors, who now can smoke in designated areas and at specific times when they are supposed to be "invisible" to students, would be banned from lighting up at all. The students are also asking that Manatee follow in the footsteps of at least six other Florida school districts -- including Charlotte, Pinellas and Levy -- and institute a tobacco-free hiring policy.

That would mean tobacco smokers couldn't even be hired as employees. An organization called Tobacco Free Kids says such a policy could potentially save government bodies $3,000 per employee in insurance costs each year and free up an estimated 80 hours of work time annually that smokers are using for cigarette breaks.

But more importantly, say students Ashton Mulvany and Rachael Strebel, the tobacco-free policy would ensure students never saw adults and teachers smoking, which in turn would decrease the chances that teens would consider smoking.

Mulvany and Strebel each come from families where one or more of their parents and grandparents smoke. Those same family members, the two said, have also warned the teens against picking up the habit.

Mulvany and Strebel also have appeared before the Bradenton City Commission and asked it to ban candy-

flavored tobacco within city limits, and they'll be making the same request of the Manatee County Commission within the next month.

Board Chairman Harry Kinnan asked district staffers to research the feasibility of the tobacco-free policies. Board member Julie Aranibar thanked the students for "telling us all what we need to do."

In other business, the school board approved a five-year contract with Just for Girls Inc. for an all-girls school. The nonprofit group had asked for an eight- to 15-year contract, which would be the longest contract ever approved by the Manatee school board for a charter school.

Just for Girls Executive Director Becky Canesse said the longer contract would have helped her organization receive the financing needed to eventually expand the school. She said she hoped her group's long history of collaborating with the school district and adjusting to meet its needs would enable the board to approve the unusually long contract.

But board members voted 4-1 to stick with the traditional five-year charter school contract. Board member Barbara Harvey cast the only vote against the five-year contract, saying she felt it worthwhile to make it clear that working with the district is recognized.

Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Or follow her on Twitter @chawesreports.