By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
(The online edition of this story was updated March 22, 2018 at 3:18 p.m.)
The numbers of vaping infractions at Leander ISD is on the rise. This school year already, there have been more than 160 discipline incidents regarding the use of a tobacco product on campus, including e-cigarettes, and more than 30 at Vandegrift. Vaping is against school rules and it is illegal for those under the age of 18, and since it is still relatively new, LISD is grappling with the issue of e-cigarette usage on school campuses.
Vaping at school and the selling of e-cigarette paraphernalia presents a unique challenge to schools separate from the use of traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes or chewing tobacco.
Whereas cigarettes can easily be detected by smell, vaping — which produces a cloud of odorless vapor — can be easily concealed, either by doing it out of sight of campus cameras or through techniques taught on sites such a YouTube.
And while they’re illegal for anyone under the age of 18, e-cigarettes are easily acquired and shared by students and can look like nothing more than a USB thumb drive. Some are shaped like a credit card but thicker.
With vaping on the rise, the state has, for now, chosen to track discipline events that involve vaping the same as for other tobacco products. According to a statement from the district, “While vaping is not a category unto itself in the (discipline data) collected at every campus, it’s classified under the ‘possessed, used or accepted cigarette/tobacco product’ category.”
This includes students caught vaping liquids (also called vaping “juice”) with or without nicotine. Vaping liquids are currently made in over 7,000 flavors, many of which are kid friendly, such as fruit and candy flavors.
The use or possession of tobacco, e-cigarettes or vaping liquids on a LISD campus carries with it disciplinary consequences, including in-school suspension. Furthermore, any e-cigarettes found on campus are confiscated. Parents can get them after school, as can a student over 18, or if parents wish, the school disposes of them.
In the 2014-15 school year, in the the district as a whole, 146 middle and high school students were caught using tobacco or e-cigarettes including seven at Four Points Middle School and 25 at Vandegrift. This was the first year that e-cigarettes and their components were added to the LISD list of prohibited items. Tobacco products of any kind have not been permitted for years.
“Student Code of Conduct added the specific term ‘e-cigarettes’ in 2014. However, I think it needs to be abundantly clear that the term was new, so it was added, but any tobacco product has been banned from LISD schools for decades, so they were still banned prior to the inclusion of that specific term,” Ryan said.
Those numbers dropped dramatically in the following two years, to 111 in 2015-16 including 16 at VHS and 107 in 2016-17 including 17 at VHS.
But the district has seen a significant increase in vaping infractions in the current school year, already recording 161 infractions, an over 50 percent increase so far, including 31 VHS students.
Many Vandegrift students, when asked, insist that “everyone” vapes these days. (See sidebar for one family’s experience with teen vaping.)
Rather than panic, the district is continuing and enhancing its efforts to educate students, beginning in elementary school, about the risks associated with e-cigarettes as well as tobacco, drugs and alcohol. This is incorporated as part of students’ health TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills).
LISD has what they call ADAPT, or Alcohol Drug Awareness and Prevention Team, including four counselors that visit schools and lead parent presentations.
ADAPT hopes to impart to students, “knowledge about… how (vaping) impacts your brain development,” said Steve Clark, director of counseling Services for LISD.
He said the program, “also focuses on refusal skills. In other words, how do you tell a friend no… that may be asking you to do something that you know is not right.”
With vaping becoming so common, it can be harder for teens — who are developmentally inclined to trust peers more than parents — to say no. “Any behavior can be… the kind of thing where you want to fit in, so you do it,” said Clark.
The message to students remains focused on rules and consequences. Clark explained that, “We tell students that vaping by students on campus obviously is against school rules and could result in disciplinary action.”
Not to mention illegal. “We also tell them it’s prohibited by law for anyone under age 18,” said Clark.
In addition to disciplinary consequences, LISD does not want to turn away any students struggling with peer pressure or addiction. “If a student required assistance… with refusal skills or seeking support for tobacco cessation or vaping cessation or any other thing,” said Clark, “please see a school counselor and request a referral for an ADAPT counselor.”
Most alarming to the district, parents and public health officials are the unknown health effects of e-cigarette usage, which remain little understood as the product grows in popularity. The FDA is still trying to determine how to regulate e-cigarettes.
According to a study released in February 2018 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers, “found that significant numbers of the devices generated aerosols with potentially unsafe levels of lead, chromium, manganese and/or nickel. Chronic inhalation of these metals has been linked to lung, liver, immune, cardiovascular and brain damage, and even cancers.”
“It’s important for the FDA, the e-cigarette companies and vapers themselves to know that these heating coils, as currently made, seem to be leaking toxic metals—which then get into the aerosols that vapers inhale,” said Ana María Rule, study senior author.
Vandegrift principal Charlie Little seconds these concerns.
“There’s a perception among students that vaping is somehow safer than smoking cigarettes. We know that vaping poses a number of health risks to our young people, and we’re committed to educating students about those dangers,” Little said.
While VHS ramps up enforcement of policies prohibiting vaping, the school urges students and staff to notify an administrator if they witness vaping on campus.
Students, parents and community members can also report their concerns anonymously via LISD’s Anonymous Alert system by visiting www.anonymousalerts.com/leanderisd.