Richardson ISD began tracking discipline referrals related to vaping in January after noticing exponential growth in the use of e-cigarettes on campus. In the spring semester of 2019, district staff recorded 114 vaping-related discipline referrals. So far this fall, 58 incidents have been recorded, said Matthew Gibbins, RISD chief executive director for student services.
“From a learning standpoint, it can really stifle things that go on in the classroom, especially if you have students who are actively vaping while class is going on, which is something we’ve seen,” Gibbins said.
While Plano ISD does not track discipline referrals specific to vaping, it does keep a record of reported incidents. Last school year, the district recorded 21 incidents, up from just two incidents the year prior.
What educators are seeing locally is in line with state and national data. According to the 2018 Texas Youth Tobacco Survey, almost one-third of Texas high school students reported having used an e-cigarette at one time.
At the national level, use of e-cigarettes increased 78% among high school students and nearly 50% among middle school students during school year 2017-18, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. In 2018, more than 3.6 million youths in the U.S. reported having used an e-cigarette within the past 30 days, the survey found.
Last December, youth vaping was declared an epidemic by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams.
Richardson and Plano ISD officials are responding to the trend by educating students, parents and staff about the health risks and legal consequences associated with vaping.
A letter sent home to RISD parents in August detailed the ramifications associated with vaping at school.
Students caught with a device containing only nicotine are subject to a three-day, in-school suspension, the letter stated. In PISD, these incidents would also be addressed at the campus level, according to district spokesperson Lesley Range-Stanton.
If a device tests positive for an illegal substance, such as THC, students in both RISD and PISD can be arrested by police on suspicion of a felony drug charge.
RISD data shows that between January and May of this year, 22 vaping-related discipline referrals led to an arrest and subsequent 90-day expulsion to the Juvenile Justice Alternative Placement Center in southern Dallas.
A felony can prevent a student from getting into college by rendering them ineligible for financial aid or other scholarships, Gibbins said.
“It gets pretty serious pretty quick,” Gibbins said. “It can affect a whole lot of things, and our hands are tied.”
At the beginning of the fall semester, RISD changed the way it handles expulsions for students who are arrested for felony possession of THC oil. Rather than sending students to the juvenile center, students have the opportunity to enroll in a 90-day, in-district probationary program. Students can reduce the program by 30 days by meeting certain requirements, such as attending a half-day drug awareness class.
“We want to keep them here in our system, educate them and know what we are educating them about,” Gibbins said.
YOUTH HEALTH RISKS
While the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes remain unknown, medical experts have deemed the products unsafe for youths because of the harmful substances they contain, chief among which is the addictive drug nicotine.
Nicotine use by young people 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, the centers added.
Engage Collin County, a local substance use prevention coalition, has noticed a rise in nicotine addiction among young people in Collin County, Executive Director Jana Jansson said. But students often fail to see the risks associated with vaping, 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.
A recent legislative change at the state level raised the age to purchase and consume nicotine from 18 to 21. The law, which went into effect Sept. 1, was passed in an effort to curb nicotine addiction in young people, said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who authored the measure.
JUUL, the most commonly sold e-cigarette in the U.S., offers pods with 3%-5% nicotine. The 5% pod contains at least as much nicotine as one pack of cigarettes, according to the CDC.
Students gravitate toward JUULs mainly because they are easy to conceal, according to the CDC.
“The rise in e-cigarette use during 2017-18 is likely because of the recent popularity of e-cigarettes shaped like a USB flash drive, such as JUUL; these products can be used discreetly, have a high nicotine content, and come in flavors that appeal to youths,” a statement from the CDC said.
But advocates for responsible e-cigarette usage say the dangers of nicotine are overblown. Even though vaping liquids often contain high concentrations of nicotine, what matters is the method of delivery, American Vaping Association President Greg Conley said.
“When you light a cigarette on fire, you are essentially freebasing nicotine, sending it very fast, very rapidly through the bloodstream,” he said. “So, puff for puff, JUUL does not deliver the same amount of nicotine in the same amount of time as a cigarette.”
Still, Conley acknowledges that young people often abuse e-cigarettes by inhaling many times in rapid succession in order to create a head high.
Despite the lack of concrete evidence surrounding the physical and mental dangers of e-cigarettes, RISD’s position is that vaping poses a significant threat to student health and safety.
One of the ways the district is working to curb vaping is through its Anti-Vaping Committee. The group is responsible for creating and posting anti-vaping signage across campuses and providing educational materials for parents, students and staff.
Monitoring of students by staff, especially between classes, has also been kicked up a notch, Gibbins said.
“If kids know that the administrators are out and about, there’s less likelihood of them doing some of the things they’re doing, like vaping in the bathrooms,” Gibbins said.
Principals have reported less time spent on dealing with vaping referrals since prevention initiatives launched in the fall, Gibbins said.
“We want to keep empowering the principals and educating the community and kids about the dangers of [vaping],” he said.
This story is Part 1 of a three-part special report that ran in the November issue of the Richardson edition. Part 2 on vaping impact on health can be found here. Part 3 on the impact of vaping-related illness on business can be found here.