The Falls Church School Board will vote this month on whether to prohibit cigarette smoking for students at George Mason Junior-Senior High School starting next fall.
Currently, high school students may smoke in a small specific area outside the school, provided they are at least 16 years old and have written permission from their parents.
In March the Student Activities Council, a group of students, teachers and parents, voted 17 to 6 to forward a recommendation to the School Board to change the policy and ban smoking for students on school grounds. The council's recommendation has been approved by a group of administrators and by the faculty advisory council.
Principal George Thoms said there was a move three years ago to prohibit smoking. A group of vocal, nonsmoking students argued that an individual should have the right to smoke if he so chooses, he said.
Thoms said that now, the same kind of students are arguing against smoking. "They're now saying smoking's bad for your health -- 'I don't want it around me,'" he said.
"I think the issue really came down to health versus individual rights," said Nancy Sprague, the school system's director of instruction. "The predominant feeling is that we honestly believe and teach that smoking is very harmful to your health."
Joan Tannenbaum, assistant principal at George Mason, said she thinks fewer students are smoking now than several years ago, partly because smoking is no longer considered as "cool" as it once was.
"On MTV," -- a cable network featuring music videos -- "they don't show Madonna smoking," she said.
While school administrators say that about 20 high school students have permission to smoke, students themselves estimate that about 50 students out of a student body of 600 actually smoke on school grounds.
While boys without permission to smoke often go outside for a cigarette, girls without permission often head to the restrooms to smoke, especially in cold or rainy weather, students say.
"A lot of nonsmokers are bothered by the fact that smokers smoke in the bathroom," said Susan Schick, president of the senior class. "It's a big problem in the winter."
Thoms said there is some concern among teachers that if the no-smoking policy goes into effect, teachers will be forced to spend their free periods policing the school grounds and serving as "bathroom patrols" looking for smoking offenders.
A feeling among both smoking and nonsmoking students is that if the policy goes into effect, it should apply to teachers, too.
"They're trying to establish a policy here, and the policy isn't going to be effective if you let some people smoke," said Mouncey Ferguson, a nonsmoking sophomore. "If they're heading in that direction, they should say teachers shouldn't smoke, too."
While school administrators say that only a handful of teachers at George Mason smoke, they say that they do not want to force instructors to comply with a no-smoking policy at this time. Currently, teachers may smoke only in a small faculty room next to the main teacher's lounge.
Falls Church School Board Chairman Ellen Salsbury said she feels that antismoking sentiment among board members is fairly strong. "I think the board will probably pass the policy change," she said.
Meanwhile, students who smoke at school say they are angry and worried.
"I don't think it's the school's right to take away my privilege," said Kevin McKendree, a 17-year-old junior. "I'd like to quit, but I can't. I'd break the rule. I'd have to."
"I think the bathrooms will be worse than ever," said Erin Kamber, another 17-year-old junior.
"As the day progresses without having a cigarette, you cannot pay attention," said a 10th-grade boy who smokes at school without permission. "It'll pass, though. I don't know anyone on those councils who smokes."
He, too, said that if the School Board adopts a no-smoking policy, he plans to steal away and sneak cigarettes.
"I already have places set in my mind," he said.