Incidents involving students found with e-cigarettes or vape pens in school increased dramatically last year and the issue is still trending upward.
“It’s an epidemic,” said Todd Southard, Pilot Point High School principal. “There is no doubt in my mind that it is on the rise.”
Possession of cigarettes or tobacco products is prohibited in school codes of conduct and Texas statute requires every district to track disciplinary incidents. In 2016-2017, Pilot Point Independent School District reported no incidents involving tobacco products. It reported 23 last year. Most, if not all, of those incidents involved e-cigarettes or vape pens, said Trina Brown, Pilot Point ISD director of federal programs and student services.
“This is not something that is exclusive to Pilot Point,” Southard said. “I’ve talked to principals at Whitesboro, I’ve talked to principals in Gunter, Callisburg, Ponder, and it’s something we’re all struggling with.”
Aubrey Independent School District has seen a similar rise in violations to its student code of conduct. It reported 10 tobacco-related incidents in 2016-2017, 24 incidents in 2017-2018 and 27 incidents in 2018-2019 through March 21.
“We’re not going to tolerate it on campus,” Aubrey ISD superintendent David Belding said. “When someone is caught with them, a discipline consequence is given.”
At Pilot Point High School, a first offense is punishable by three days of in-school suspension. After a second offense, a student may be sent to a disciplinary alternative education program for 30 days. The school has had to exercise that option several times, Southard said.
The rise in local school incidents coincides with the national trend of dramatically increased use of e-cigarettes and vape pens among young people. More than 3.6 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes or vape pens in 2018, according to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
E-cigarette and vape pen use among high school students increased by 78 percent in 2017-2018, according to the report. The agency attributed the rise in use to the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes shaped like USB flash drives, such as those sold under the Juul brand name.
“These products can be used discreetly, have a high nicotine content and come in flavors that appeal to youths,” the report stated.
Both Southard and Belding agreed that bathrooms are problem areas for students escaping to vape. Because there is no burning involved in the activity, it is harder to detect than traditional tobacco use.
Lindsay High School has installed sensors in bathrooms that send automated messages to the administration if vaping is detected, Southard said.
“We’re looking into that here,” he said. “But those sensors are fairly costly.”
At Aubrey High School, hallway cameras allow administrators to investigate reported incidents and pull up traffic going into bathrooms, said Shannon Saylor, assistant superintendent of human resources and student services. Teachers also conduct sweeps of the bathrooms periodically, she said.
Saturday, Aubrey ISD Chief of Police Scott Collins will present to the public at Monaco Elementary School on the dangers of e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid and producing an aerosol spray that is taken into the lungs by the user. Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet. They may also contain chemicals linked to lung disease and heavy metals such as nickel, tin or lead.
Nicotine is highly addictive and its use in adolescence can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control, according to the CDC fact sheet.
Local retailers specializing in the sale of e-cigarette or vape products, such as Freedom Vapes and Vapor Sense, both in Aubrey, prominently display posters that inform consumers it is against the law to sell tobacco products to minors. Freedom Vapes does not allow minors in its store.
Retailers must apply for a permit to sell tobacco products. They face the revocation of their permit and fines of up to $1,000 per violation if the state comptroller finds, after notice and hearing, that they have sold to minors.
Minors who violate the tobacco law can be fined up to $250 and be required to attend a tobacco awareness program or participate in tobacco-related community service. Parents of minors convicted of a violation may also be required to attend the tobacco awareness program with their child.
In addition to posters outlining laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors, and posters disclosing the dangers of nicotine, e-cigarette and vape shops also display posters outlining the danger of explosions caused by batteries in e-cigarette and vape devices.
About two years ago, an e-cigarette blew up on a student in the ag shop boy’s bathroom, Southard said.
“It was bad,” he said.