Cover Story
High rollers
Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 4.18.14 PMShe walked into the Roxbury convenience store like she owned the place. “Can I get a chocolate rollie?” she asked the clerk. “How many?” the clerk asked. “A single.” “We don’t have any singles.” “I’ll take a pack.” Just like that, the 16-year-old girl left the shop with a $6 package of five, chocolate-flavored, Dutch Masters mini cigars -- no questions asked. She coolly exited through a door that contained a hollow warning: UNDER 18. NO TOBACCO. WE CARD. PLEASE HAVE ID READY. The illegal transaction took under two minutes. The teen was part of a joint undercover team working on assignment for Teens in Print and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Her instructions were not to lie and not to carry her high school ID. The TiP/NECIR reporting squad was dispatched to stores across the city not to identify every neighborhood violator one-by-one, but to test the word on the street: that as long as you know the right places, even underage buyers find it simple to purchase rollies, the way many young people prefer to smoke marijuana these days by removing tobacco from a small cigar and replacing it with the drug. As one 17-year-old girl from Boston Community Leadership Academy says: “Everyone I hang out with uses them, so I do, too.” Like other teens interviewed for this story, she did not want to be named. Over several hours during three days in March and April, the under-18 teen reporters found that despite intense efforts by health officials to keep these popular products out of the hands of young people -- including compliance inspections; in-store education sessions; institution of a high minimum price for single cigars; controlled underage test buys; and toughened penalties for illegal sales -- one quarter of the 35 stores the reporting team visited blatantly broke the law by selling the youth rollies. The scofflaws included a corner store in Brighton, a gas mart in Mattapan, and a bodega in Roxbury. By city regulation, establishments are prohibited from selling tobacco products to anyone under 18 or they face both an escalating set of fines that starts at $200 as well as the loss of their permit to sell tobacco for a period ranging from seven days to all-out revocation. But some small shops are apparently either so desperate to make a buck – or so unwilling to challenge the customer, or so lax -- that they didn’t even ask the reporters their age, let alone check IDs. Others teens say they’ve had the same experience. “It’s very easy to get,” says a 17-year-old from Jeremiah E. Burke High School about buying rollies at a store on Blue Hill Avenue. With over 800 retailers citywide who sell tobacco products -- and are part of an industry that has regular turnover -- it’s a challenge for regulators to keep up. “It is an ongoing process to get them into compliance and get them not to sell to underage youth,” says Nikysha Harding, Director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, which regulates businesses selling tobacco products. Yet health officials say the use of rollies can represent a double danger for teens. “You’re exposed to nicotine as well as marijuana,” says Harding. One 17-year-old from BCLA says he stays away from rollies because he knows that that even though the insides of the cigars are emptied, their outside leaf wrappers are made of tobacco. “Tobacco products pollute the lungs and are addictive,” he says. During the TiP/NECIR field test, one of the local shopkeepers refused to sell a $2.60 rollie to a 16-year-old reporter. Yet the clerk was so intent on closing the sale that he suggested to the underage teen that she ask a random older customer to make the buy for her. The clerk then watched as the illicit business deal unfolded in front of him. The money passed from the minor, to the man of age, until finally resting in the cash register. This article was produced as part of a collaboration between Teens in Print and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting based at Boston University and at the studios of WGBH News. The project is funded by the family of the late journalist and author Caroline Knapp.
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It probably does not ease your mind knowing that as soon as the school year ends, it may be on you to buy a monthly T pass that costs $70 and could soon rise to $75. There are approximately two months of summer. Student riders will be drilling holes in their pockets at the end of the day. As a large population with no other way of getting around, the youth represent the MBTA. The Youth Affordabili(T) Coalition, or YAC, is working to find ways to improve public transportation for young people. In March, youth rallied downtown to make it known that teens cannot keep relying on their own money to get to things like work, sports, or tutoring sessions. YAC is proposing a Youth Pass. Students from the ages of 12 to 21 would be able to use it limitlessly throughout the school year and during the summer. They would only have to pay $10 to re-activate the card monthly. I recall having to take the T all summer while going to my job, which only paid a stipend. My stipend became my T fare, which could have been the money I kept for college. This is a very common story that youth share. Transportation costs are a huge barrier to teens working jobs and internships.
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Despite the hype, not every kid wants to go to college. Not every kid would excel in college. That’s why more high schools should have vocational classes that teach things like carpentry or auto repair. Those students could get jobs after high school and not end up on the street with no life. While many today turn their noses up at voke ed, there are benefits for the students who don’t want to go to college -- and can’t afford to, either. A 2012 essay posted at studymode.com notes that voke ed can offer many students a more practical pathway to a good life than years spent confused in the classroom only to face the burden of college debt: “First of all, vocational education in high school focuses on specific training for a career or field. This hands-on training can be helpful in high school as students make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. Many vocational high schools provide students with career preparation in health care, computer science, education, business, and any number of highly specialized trades. Individuals have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to become carpenters, electricians, machinists, painters, plumbers, or other professionals.”
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Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.16.50 AMIt was an early, misty morning with gray sky -- the first day of school -- and I was finally in tenth grade. I found myself in a math class, constantly looking at the posters on the walls. They all seemed to read: “chicken scrawl.” I couldn’t understand what the teacher was writing on the board. As the weeks passed, I was still confused. I can’t imagine what would have happened if the teacher hadn’t told me to come after school to get extra help. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have enough qualified teachers. While many are fabulous overall, others may know a subject but are unable to connect with students. That is a failing proposition. Parents, students, and administrators should fight to have effective teachers. That means those who know the material, have a passion for teaching it, and the ability to build bridges with students.
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Interesting. When you ask a five-year-old what he can do with a box, he has so many ideas. But as that kid grows up and goes to school, that creativity shrinks. One reason for this is the emphasis on rote memorization of things rather than actually using your brain. Many students feel they are learning how to pass tests rather than acquiring actual knowledge. They are getting used to there being only one answer for everything. It amazes me that they are not ready for the next level thinking, which is to understand that in life there is no one answer to everything. Just ask yourself: Did Steve Jobs use his imagination to make an iPod? Did Bill Gates use his creativity to make Microsoft?
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