As vaping continues to grow in popularity among students in high schools, schools across the metro east are looking for ways to curb the habit.
Vapes, or e-cigarettes, are electronic devices used to inhale aerosol or “vapors.” The devices hit the market in 2007 and have grown in popularity every year since.
In 2018, the percentage of 12th grade students who reported vaping nicotine in the past 30 days nearly doubled from 11 percent to 21 percent, according to a University of Michigan Monitoring the Future study. The increase was twice as large as the previous record for largest-ever increase in addictive substance use from 12th graders.
Highland High School Principal Chris Becker said vaping is becoming increasingly prevalent among students at his school.
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In the 2017-18 school year, seven students at Highland Middle School were caught vaping and 33 were caught at the high school. As of March, with three months left in the school year, four students at the middle school and 28 at the high school have been disciplined.
In January of 2018 the school district decided it needed to take more action, taking to social media and email to make parents aware of what was going on at school.
“We started a campaign to try to deter it and we saw some success with that,” Becker said. “But this year we will have more infractions than last year.”
The Monitoring the Future study found there were at least 1.3 million additional adolescent vapers in 2018 compared to 2017, setting the record of the biggest spike in an adolescent addiction in the studies 44 year span.
It’s that spike that creates problems for high schools and, in Highland’s case, middle schools too. Last year, Student Resource Officer Chris Flake joined the district, which Becker said is a likely factor in the increased number of vaping infractions.
If a student gets caught vaping in a Highland School District building the punishment can be severe. It can include a few days of suspension, time in the district’s STOP program and a municipal fine from the city that is on average roughly $150.
However, Flake said catching students in the act is only half the battle. He said a more important part of his job is educating students about the possible dangers of vaping.
Throughout the year Flake visits classrooms throughout the middle school and high school to talk to students out of starting the habit. He said while punishment can work as a deterrent, education can have a bigger effect.
“I try it tell them about the school consequences, the legal consequences and of course the health consequences,” he said.
At Belleville School District 201, Superintendent Jeff Flake said his district also is dealing with increasing numbers of students vaping. He said the districts treats is much like it treats students who get caught smoking, with detentions or even suspensions.
He said he believes more students are getting addicted to vaping because the flavors are marketed toward younger people.
In September of 2018, the Food and Drug Administration labeled youth vaping an epidemic and announced it would stop sales of flavored e-cigarettes if major manufacturers don’t do enough to keep them out of the hands of children and teens.
A New Addiction
In addition to the possible health issues vaping can bring, long term addiction is proving to be a new challenge for educators. According to Yale Medicine, most teens who vape aren’t aware that vaping can be addictive.
Highland High School Associate Principal Caleb Houchins said education and outreach has become the main focus for the school. When a student is caught, it presents an opportunity to send them down a different path.
“We want to do more than punishments, we want to help reform these kids,” Houchins said. “If we do have a student who gets in trouble with this we try to talk to them about addiction and we try to give them some ideas about how to beat it.”
At other schools, like O’Fallon School District 90, deterring addiction students come down to communication with parents and discipline. Superintendent Carrie Hruby said the highly addictive nature of vaping makes communication key.
“Because it is highly addictive, it’s important for school officials to communicate with parents, in addition to disciplinary consequences, if a student is suspected to be vaping,” she said.
At Highland, Becker said there is still lots of work to be done when it comes to deterrence. He said understanding students addiction is an important part of deterring it.
Becker said he is working with his staff to develop more strategies that will deter students.
“It’s not that students want to come to school and vape, but that they are physically addicted,” Becker said. “I’m really worried that kids are getting hooked on vapes and can’t get off.”