AUGUSTA — A school board committee agreed Monday to propose altering Augusta schools’ tobacco rules to make a program of education, counseling and an alternative to suspension the first options over suspension from school for students caught using or possessing tobacco, but spurned one board member’s efforts to reduce the maximum punishment for a first offense from three days of suspension to one.

Policy Committee members also voted to add language to a related anti-tobacco policy which will make it against the rules for anyone, including adults, to wear clothing advertising tobacco products at any school function.

The committee voted unanimously to forward for a first reading an altered Tobacco Use and Possession Policy and an also-altered Tobacco Use and Possession Administrative Procedure to the full school board for consideration. The school board meets Wednesday.

The administrative procedure currently states students caught using or possessing tobacco in school buildings or on school grounds or during school-sponsored events will receive up to three days of suspension from school for the first offense.

Committee members agreed to new punishment language for a first offense that states a student caught using or possessing tobacco would receive education about the hazards of smoking, at least one session of substance abuse counseling, and two days in an alternative-to-suspension program offered through the Augusta Boys & Girls Club for Teens or, if they refuse those options, they “may” receive up to three days suspension.

Committee members said suspending a student should be seen as more of a last resort than the first response.

“Suspension, all the current data says, should be the last resort” for students with a substance abuse issue, said Laura Hamilton, at-large board member and chairwoman of the committee, noting she works in the substance abuse treatment field. “The last thing you want to do is send people away from you. You want to keep them tagged in.”

Tom Connors, another at-large board member and committee member, sought to reduce the maximum suspension for a first tobacco offense to one day, but later withdrew his motion after garnering no support.

“The stickler for me is eliminating kids from school for three days,” Connors said. “Kids need to be involved in school. In my experience in high school, the kids who smoked would’ve loved to be away from school for three days. It’s like a vacation.”

Stewart Brittner, one of two assistant principals at the high school, said even under the old policy, administrators would first offer the two-day alternative to suspension program and, if the student or parents declined, then suspend the student for between one and three days. But he spoke in favor of retaining up to three days of suspension as an option.

He said other students often know when a fellow student is caught using or possessing tobacco, and if they see that student back in school the next day, they may not take the consequences of smoking or chewing tobacco seriously.

“It might seem heavy-handed to have them out of school, but the message goes out to other students,” Brittner said. “The first time a student is seen smoking and caught and is back in school the next day, the message will go out to other students it is an acceptable thing to do.”

Earlier this year several parents complained at a meeting that the school system’s consequences for student tobacco use were too severe.

Committee members also agreed to add language to the Tobacco Use and Possession Policy suggested by Stephanie Martyak, substance abuse program manager for Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, banning any tobacco advertising on school grounds before and after school, including on clothing worn by students or adults.

Superintendent James Anastasio said that policy would be difficult to enforce on adults, some of whom, he said, smoke or chew tobacco just outside some school buildings at after-school events.

Kim Martin, chairwoman of the school board, said she would be hesitant to put something in a policy if officials don’t plan to enforce it.

Jennifer Neumeyer, at-large board member, suggested looking at that as a goal for now and eventually enforcing the policy on adults.

Martyak said she could provide “tobacco-free zone” signs for the school system, but only if its policies comply with the organization’s standards, which included the language banning tobacco advertising on clothing of anyone, including parents and other adults, on school grounds.

Committee members agreed to add that language.

The tobacco rules would also apply to teachers, coaches and other staff, but without any specific disciplinary measures for employees caught breaking the rules. Committee members removed proposed language from the policy which would have stated “any employee violating this policy shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary measures,” because the proposal had not been discussed with the Augusta Education Association, the union which represents teachers and other employee groups.

The full school board meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday in council chambers at Augusta City Center. Board members are also scheduled to consider new or altered policies on public concerns and complaints and drug and alcohol use by students; to hold a closed-door session for their annual evaluation of Anastasio; to discuss an early college program; and to discuss a proposed school garden grant proposal.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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