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An April 2 article in the New York Times describes a nationwide “vaping explosion” in schools. It details how a high school in California closed bathrooms and placed monitors near the doors of those that remained open during lunch to try and keep students from vaping. Other schools are increasing suspensions and expulsions, even conducting mandatory drug tests on students found with “Juuls” or other e-cigarettes. New Trier Township High School is considering installing vapor detectors in bathrooms and asking police to write citations for teens found with e-cigarettes. 

At Evanston Township High School, none of these actions is being considered.  Vaping does not appear to be a big problem.

“Vaping is not an epidemic here at all,” Dr. Keith Robinson, Assistant Principal of Education Services at ETHS, told the RoundTable. He said only nine students have been caught vaping at school this year. At New Trier’s Winnetka campus, there have been 56 incidences of students disciplined for vaping and using e-cigarettes, according to a presentation given at the New Trier High School Board of Education meeting on Feb. 19. The report did not specify whether the cases reported at New Trier are of students actively vaping on campus.

What Is Vaping?

The National Center on Addiction and Substance abuse defines vaping as “the act of inhaling and exhaling aerosol, often referred to as vapor, which is produced by an e-cigarette or similar device.” The term vaping is used because e-cigarettes do not produce smoke, but rather an aerosol, often mistaken for water vapor. A liquid-filled cartridge is attached to a device and heated by a battery to produce the aerosol, which is inhaled through a mouthpiece. Many vaping devices look like large pens or flash drives and can be used to vape nicotine as well as THC, a chemical found in marijuana. 

Heath risks are still being evaluated, but growing evidence shows cause for concern. A vaping cartridge contains twice as much nicotine as a cigarette, making vaping highly addictive. Research shows vaping is also enticing more kids to try cigarettes. Diacetyl, a chemical found in some e-liquid flavoring, has been found to cause “popcorn lung,” scarring in the small air sacks in the lungs, which can lead to serious lung disease. 

Are Students Vaping?

“We are not oblivious; we know kids are vaping,” said Dr. Robinson, “but we have to see them” to take action. “We’re not going to shake kids down.” He said the safety team monitors the halls, stairways and bathrooms, and they are not catching kids vaping in the building. “Kids are not openly vaping in supervised places.”

Those who are caught vaping or with paraphernalia deal with the consequences.

Current school policy for “smoking/tobacco use” states, “Expectation: Illinois state law and ETHS policy prohibits any student or other person from using tobacco and smoking anywhere on school grounds – inside or outside the building. In addition, smoking paraphernalia, including electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), or similar devices are prohibited on school grounds. Tobacco products and smoking paraphernalia will be confiscated from students. Action: “Parent notification, possible extended detention(s), may be considered for suspension for each offense, or possible social probation.”

“There is an educational component” to dealing with students caught vaping, said Dr. Robinson. Some are referred to the SUI Program – Students Under the Influence – which provides substance-abuse education during sessions held after school and during Wildkit Academy. “Progressive discipline” and alternatives to suspension are used more and more to help keep students in school and connected to supports, he said.

The school just started keeping track of incidences involving e-cigarettes so it is hard to say if the behavior is increasing or decreasing. Currently, the annual Report on Student Discipline does not report on incidences specific to vaping. Discipline relating to “drug offenses” and “smoking” are tracked. “Drug offenses” refers mainly to cannabis and prescription drugs, said Dr. Robinson, but could include incidences of vaping, since those numbers have not been isolated in the past.

What About Prescription Drugs?

“That’s not a major issue here either,” Dr. Robinson said. “We don’t see kids openly selling pills. If we find out, if we suspect a student is under the influence, we send them to the nurse for an evaluation.”

Disciplines for “drug offenses” is seventh on the list of top recorded incidences. The majority of discipline is given for “disruptive acts,” “defiance of authority” and “unauthorized presence” [not being in the correct place] followed by “tardy,” “fighting” and “harassment/bullying.”

“See Something, Say Something”

Dr. Robinson said he is looking forward to seeing what this year’s discipline numbers show, in part, to see if new approaches have had any effect. Aside from using more targeted interventions and alternatives to suspension, the school has encouraged a “See Something, Say Something” approach with students and staff.  

Since the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting, many people have been outspoken about how there were red flags that something was wrong yet no one did anything, said Dr. Robinson. On social media, there are posts about drugs and fire arms, and often kids know who’s in the picture, he said. By giving students ways to report behavior that concerns them, the school can not only “make sure as a community we’re safer,” but also look at data and “develop targeted interventions” to better support individual students. “We want to bring kids closer, not push them away,” he said.