Monday, August 3, 2015

The birth and death of North Central High School’s "smoker’s corner"

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2015 at 2:07 PM

click to enlarge A young assistant principal, Mick Miller, gathers cigarette butts at the North Central High School smoker's corner in the early 1990s - PHOTO COURTESY OF MICK MILLER
  • Photo courtesy of Mick Miller
  • A young assistant principal, Mick Miller, gathers cigarette butts at the North Central High School smoker's corner in the early 1990s

Back when I attended North Central High School in the early 2000s, one of it’s most iconic features was the smoker’s corner. Across the street from the school, at the corner of Augusta and Howard, crowds of high school smokers would huddle together and smoke before school and during lunch. The tenacity —  the willingness to stand and smoke in the rain or the snow — was almost inspirational.

While the corner still exists, the smokers have stopped showing up. What happened? I made some quick calls to find out how the smoker’s corner was created, and why it no longer exists.

Mick Miller, assistant principal of North Central High School back in 1990, says that for years, North Central students smoked directly outside the school doors on an area called the “slab.”

“It was very convenient. Those were a lot of kids I dealt with all the time,” Miller says. “Everyone was contained. We knew where to find people.”

But in the 1990-1991 school year, a new law took effect, banning smoking on school property. Suddenly, smoking on the slab was out. Smokers had to walk all the way across the street and smoke there.

“We had a break during the day, called ‘Powow,” — 15 minutes between second and third period,” Miller says. “We would have this exodus of kids who were smokers, or kids who wanted to hang out with kids that were.”

The neighbors, unsurprisingly, hated it. 

Miller remembers walking back and forth at smoker’s corner with a big black garbage bag, asking the students to throw in their cigarette butts, and getting a call from the Rick Miller radio talk-show. 

“He calls me on my cellphone, while I’m out there supervising, saying, ‘You’re on live radio,’” Miller says. “It was the topic of his radio show conversation: Why were we allowing kids to smoke at school?”

But Miller took a practical approach.

“I’d rather have a kid smoke and come to school than smoke and not come to school,” he says.

What killed the smoker’s corner a decade later wasn’t a health initiative, a PSA ad campaign, or a new state regulation.

“We locked the slab doors, as simple as it was,” says Steve Fisk, North Central High School principal. For years, North Central had had an “open lunch.” I’d often drift over to the nearby Pizza Rita during lunch, grab a slice and and read a copy of the Inlander.

But a lot of kids who leave during lunch end up deciding not to come back. Attendance slips. So do grades. And, as plenty of research has shown, just a few absences can cause the dropout rate to soar.

So a few years ago, Principal Steve Fisk says, North Central barred students from leaving during lunch. They phased it in, starting with just the freshman class.

“It made better sense in terms of kids' management of time and kids' management of decision-making,” Fisk says. And since students couldn’t leave during lunch, the smoker’s corner essentially, well, went up in smoke. 

“It is no longer in existence,” Fisk says. “It was kind of funny how that changed.”

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