Data from the districts indicates each experienced a large increase from the 2016-17 school year to 2017-18 in tobacco-related discipline referrals: 253% at Gilbert Public Schools; 322% at Higley USD; and 166% at Chandler USD. Numbers have slightly declined in the following years, but they remain far above the number of 2016-17 referrals.
While the districts do not distinguish if students were referred because of smokeless tobacco usage, cigarette smoking or vaping usage, anecdotally, administrators said vaping is driving the increased referrals.
That upward trend is in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveys, which show vaping is more than twice as popular as cigarettes with teenagers in Arizona.
Furthermore, vaping—once touted as a path to cigarette cessation—makes a teen four times more likely to become a smoker than a teen who does not vape, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The districts have tobacco and drug policies in place, which define how schools will respond to the referrals. But administrators say they are more interested in education and prevention than discipline that does not curb the behavior.
“The schools [and] the principals are definitely trying different things because we see what a problem it’s becoming for kids,” said Marcie Taylor, Gilbert Public Schools secondary education executive director. “If we give them a three-day, out-of-school suspension, that’s doing nothing to help them learn of all the serious health effects that we’ve been hearing about now that have been coming to the forefront across the nation.”
Gilbert Public Schools has a pilot program aimed at vaping in place at two campuses. Chandler USD is moving to put one in place—possibly this spring—and Higley USD has produced two videos to educate students on the subject.
State law prohibits tobacco products on school grounds; inside school buildings; in school parking lots or playing fields; in school buses or vehicles; or at off-campus school sponsored events.
Each of the districts have policies in line with the law and prescribed punishments.
In GPS, principals have discretion over consequences, which include but are not limited to tobacco educational workshops put on by the town and out-of-school suspensions of up to 10 days.
In HUSD, the minimum punishment for middle and high school students who violate the tobacco policies is a three-day, out-of-school suspension, and students can face a referral to the district for long-term suspension or expulsion.
“Obviously, the goal—the purpose is to not repeat the behavior,” HUSD Support Services Director Jennifer Corry said. “When prevention doesn’t work and you have to get to intervention, there are consequences, and then, you look to see, ‘Is this a consequence that was effective or not effective?’”
Often, students can go through diversion programs depending on where an individual case is referred, such as the Maricopa County Juvenile Attorney’s Office or Gilbert Police Youth and Adult Resources, said Darren Szczepanski, Gilbert Police school resource sergeant.
“As a school, you’re there to educate,” Corry said. “We’re not there to [do a] ‘catch-ya-being-bad’-type thing. ... It’s a line that you kind of walk in that respect because you don’t want to set up that adversarial relationship with them. At the same time, you do want to do things that encourage a better choice.”
Much like in Higley USD, Gilbert Public Schools prefers prevention to discipline.
“The prevention piece is being emphasized a lot more in our schools because these kids are actually addicted,” Taylor said. “They’re addicted to the nicotine, and there’s so much talk of it now in the media that we are looking at alternative ways of educating the kids but also involving the families in that process.”
Corry notes the lack of “hardcore longitudinal-type studies that you could say with confidence to kids, ‘This is going to hurt you in the long run.’” But media reports on deaths and illnesses have put a helpful spotlight on the problem, Corry said.
In Arizona, the Department of Health Services has reported 17 vaping-related illnesses.
“It helps with those dialogues—especially with parents,” Corry said. “It heightens that conversation.”
Much of what is being done is educational. HUSD has produced a pair of videos. The first outlines HUSD policies on tobacco and drugs with consequences explained. The second is more foreboding; it is largely about the health risks in light of publicized illnesses.
In Gilbert Public Schools, Highland High School uses an online education module, and Campo Verde High School includes vaping education components in health and physical education classes.
CUSD is developing a curriculum on the topic for grades seven and up that staff plans to present to the governing board in the spring.
GPS also has two schools that are conducting a pilot program funded by a nearly $550,000 state health and wellness grant. The program at Mesquite and Gilbert high schools offers alternative consequences for students caught vaping, such as a reduction of suspension if the student takes a vaping education class with a parent.
At Mesquite, the grant pays for the presence of a social worker on campus for whom vaping prevention work is part of the job, including working with an organization to come in and teach classes on nights or Saturdays.
Gilbert High has also installed HALO Smart Sensors—a vaping detection device which can cost $1,000-$1,200 per unit—in its bathrooms.
“We know the long-term solutions include a mix of approaches, such as education [and] prevention as well as holding students accountable for their actions,” Gilbert High Principal Chris Stroud said about the program.
With grant money running out, Taylor said the district’s successful bond and override measures in November can allow the program to continue.
“We just have to keep plugging away at it,” Taylor said. “[A reduction in vaping] is not all going to happen in an instant, but we all just keep working together and moving in a direction where we hope it makes a difference.”