Educators fight underage vaping as usage increases among McKinney ISD students

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The number of student disciplinary referrals for tobacco products in McKinney ISD has quadrupled in the past five years, in large part due to the increased popularity of e-cigarettes and vaping, district officials say.

Between January and October, McKinney police issued 108 citations for minors in possession of vapes, most of them on school grounds.

To combat the growing problem, the district will launch an anti-vaping campaign in January to target not only students but also parents and district staff.

“We’re just looking for opportunities to help people understand what the risks are with vaping,” said Jennifer Akins, MISD senior director of guidance and counseling.

Underage vaping is part of a growing trend. Almost one-third of Texas High School students reported having used an e-cigarette at one time, according to the 2018 Texas Youth Tobacco Survey.


“Youth vaping is a big deal among youth in McKinney ... but it is also common across Texas and all of America,” said Paul Chabot, founder of the Coalition for McKinney Drug Free Youth, which strives to reduce and prevent the use of alcohol, tobacco and other harmful substances among youths in McKinney.

Consequences

Smoking on campus has always been against school policy, Akins said. For several years now, MISD has issued discipline referrals to students caught with tobacco products. But in recent years, the number of referrals has increased significantly, according to district data.

In the 2018-19 school year, MISD issued 280 discipline referrals to students for possession or use of tobacco-based products—more than four times as many as in the 2014-15 school year, when MISD issued 69 referrals.

While the district does not categorize these referrals by the type of product used, “the increase in incidents is definitely attributed to a rise in the use of vaping devices,” said Cody Cunningham, chief communications and support services officer at MISD.

Cunningham also connects the spike in referrals to an increased awareness of the problem from school staff.

Vapes are also illegal for anyone under the age of 21 as of Sept. 1, according to Texas law.

During the last legislative session, Texas lawmakers increased the legal age required to possess, purchase or consume tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21.

School resource officers at McKinney High School are writing between three and 15 citations a week for students vaping, according to SRO Curtis Logan.

These numbers are alarming, Akins said. The district has seen increases in the number of students bringing vaping devices to campus, she said, as well as in the number of vaping devices that test positive for controlled substances, such as tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC—the high-inducing element in marijuana.


“We are concerned about that trend, and we have been working for several years on our overall substance-use prevention programming,” Akins said.

Students caught with these products are subject to suspension, alternative campus placement and even expulsion, according to the district’s code of conduct.

If a student is caught in possession of an e-cigarette or the e-liquid that goes inside of it, guidelines for the first offense call for three days of in-school suspension, a ticket and a parent conference, per the MISD student handbook. The second offense may land a student at an alternative campus.

Students found in possession of vapes containing THC could face more serious consequences, including expulsion or arrest, according to the district.

Getting caught vaping could also damage students’ future prospects for employment, college acceptance, and financial aid, as these can stick on students’ academic or criminal records, according to Akins.

In addition to these consequences, health officials say they believe vaping poses significant mental and physical health risks, especially to minors.

“We are really talking about something that could be life and death for students,” Akins said.

Raising awareness

MISD’s anti-vaping campaign will equip each campus with a toolkit of materials to educate students on the risks of vaping, Akins said. These tools include presentations from professionals and research to help students make informed decisions about what they are putting in their bodies, she said.

“We’re just trying to really focus on vaping a little bit more intentionally to try to encourage families and students to be thinking about it,” Akins said.

The point of the campaign is to extend the conversation of vaping and its risks throughout the school year, Akins said.


“We find that students don’t understand the potential health risks of vaping,” Akins said. “They don’t think of it as the same as cigarettes.”

While the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes remain unknown, medical experts have deemed the products unsafe for youth because of the harmful substances they contain, such as the addictive drug nicotine.

When used by young people, nicotine can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.


Nicotine can also serve as a gateway to more dangerous drugs, MISD board member Stephanie O’Dell said.

Engage Collin County, a substance use prevention coalition, has noticed a rise in nicotine addiction among young people in the county, Executive Director Jana Jansson said. But students often fail to see the risks, she said.

“Part of the issue is a lack of education, and now, we’re trying to play catch-up with educating these students on something they’re well into,” Jansson said.

O’Dell said the most concerning part of this issue is that vapes are easily concealed by students, making them more difficult for staff and parents to find.


Many of these products resemble everyday items, such as USB drives—like a JUUL, the most commonly sold e-cigarette in the U.S., according to the CDC. In addition, one JUUL pod has at least as much nicotine as one pack of cigarettes, according to the CDC.

“An adolescent brain is a work in progress. It is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of psychoactive substances in a way that a mature brain may not be,” Akins said.

Parents are the most important factor in a child’s life, Chabot said, making them an integral part in early intervention and prevention of underage substance abuse.

“We encourage parents to arm themselves with relevant information and have direct conversations with their kids,” Chabot said in an email.

McKinney resident KrisAnn Rodriquez has a son that attends McKinney High School. He was recently treated for a vaping-related illness. He had purchased vape juice with THC from a classmate, she said.

“These vapes are very new and when bought off the streets are extremely harmful due to the additives,” she said in an email. “I will never be the ‘not my child’ parent again.”

On average, one out of five children under age 18 use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal or prescription drugs, Chabot said.

“Even if your kid isn’t the one ‘using,’ someone in their circle of friends is,” Chabot said in his email. “That is a dangerous and negative influence of peer pressure that can overcome many.”


Olivia Lueckemeyer and Elizabeth Uclés contributed to this story.
By Emily Davis
Emily graduated from Sam Houston State University with a degree in multi-platform journalism and a minor in criminal justice in Spring 2018. During her studies, Emily worked as an editor and reporter at The Houstonian, SHSU's local newspaper. Upon graduation, she began an editorial internship at Community Impact Newspaper in DFW, where she was then hired as Community Impact's first McKinney reporter in August 2018.


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