GRAVES: Why we fight the dragon over and over
The Mitchell School Board meeting agenda last week had a number of significant items on it. We will be replacing a large freezer/cooler unit for the school lunch program to the tune of $170,000. We reached an agreement on the master contract with our teachers for next year, well before the conclusion of this year. We approved a no-interest loan for Mitchell Technical Institute that will allow our nationally-ranked technical institute to press ahead with facility improvements this summer and over the next several years. While none of these are earth-shattering, they are significant and their accomplishment will enable the school district to do a substantially better job serving our students.
There was one item on the agenda, however, that, I must admit, was an also-ran, a ho-hum bit of hum-drum that raised neither hopes nor hackles: the revision of board policy 518, "Tobacco Free Schools."
Tobacco is an interesting topic for many reasons. Historically, it was critical to the origins of our nation since the Jamestown colony hung on only by its tobacco-stained fingernails. It has been and continues to be a public health scourge, with death tolls so high and so pervasive as to put almost any other cause to shame.
According to the CDC, 480,000 people a year die from tobacco, 80,000 more Americans in a single year than died fighting during and in the four years of World War II. Yet it is also something of a success story. Though it took decades, interminable litigation, and endless PSAs, it looks as if we finally have tobacco on the run.
Or, more accurately, had tobacco on the run. Tobacco use among Americans has been in decline now for many years. Tobacco use among young people has as well. I'm proud to say that, in part due to the hard work of Traci Moore, Samantha Olson, and, in the past, Karen Allen, who sponsor our Unfiltered Reality group, tobacco use among Mitchell students is lower than the state average.
So why mess with the tobacco policy? The primary reason we did so was not to explicitly ban cigarettes at schools — that was done, depending upon how you define it, so long ago, Fonzie was still breaking in his leather jacket at the time — but to ban vaping and all of the noxious inputs that find their way into Juuls.
In short, we did so because of, alas, human nature. Or to put it in a way our high school English students will understand, just when you've got Grendel on the run, out comes his mother and you have to fight the battle all over again. I find this discouraging.
Why is it that so frequently when we — as a society, as a nation, as a species — slay one dragon, another steps up to the plate, having been taking practice swings on deck all along? We virtually eliminate a host of childhood diseases only to have bogus medical research convince enough parents to not immunize their children that the walls of herd immunity are scaled. We make cars safer and drivers respond by taking greater risks or allowing their driving skills to flag. We are not our own worst enemy, exactly, but apparently one of his drinking buddies.
Vaping, to put the best shine on it, was developed as a way to help the tobacco-addicted defeat that addiction. And almost instantly, it seems, it changed from an exit-way drug to a gateway drug. Kids are taking to vaping the way a politician takes to a campaign contribution. Perhaps the move to vaping is not going back to square one — to be honest, I'm not sure precisely how its ill effects compare to those of lighting up a cigarette — but it certainly seems like a decisive reversal of fortunes.
There is a strong temptation, after awhile, to throw in the towel, to just accept that people who want to harm themselves are free to do so. And in a very real sense, in a free society, they are. But giving into such a temptation would be a mistake. The better approach is to accept the new, brutal facts, marshal one's forces, and sally forth against a new enemy, even if it is one that looks awfully familiar. We start with the boring task of changing policy. Then we talk and advocate and campaign. We communicate with people young and old, but in our case primarily young.
And we fight the battle all over again, bolstered by past successes and informed by the work that went into them.