For JoCo schools, vaping is a dangerous epidemic, covert and hard to control

See the latest device that helps students sneak e-cigarettes into schools

The design of the this tiny e-cigarette doesn't turn heads when students carry it with all of their other school essentials.
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The design of the this tiny e-cigarette doesn't turn heads when students carry it with all of their other school essentials.

Jill Schram’s teenage daughter had barely started her freshman year at Blue Valley North High School when she told her parents that she avoided the bathrooms there.

Inside, students often congregated in handicapped stalls or sprawled out on the floor to vape, exhaling vapor, not smoke, from their electronic cigarettes.

The practice was so commonplace that some students had nicknamed the bathroom the “Juul Room,” a reference to one of the most popular brands of e-cigarettes.

Schram, the mother of three, said vaping was barely a topic of conversation when her oldest, a 2016 graduate, attended high school. But now vaping has consumed the attention of teenagers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last year that more than 3.6 million U.S. middle and high school students had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days.

And local parents and school officials familiar with the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs have had to play catchup on ways to prevent and police a practice that has quickly become a part of youth culture.

“If you want to see people vaping,” Schram said, “just drive through the parking lot in the morning.”

In early April, Schram and roughly 200 other parents, educators and students packed into a Blue Valley auditorium for “Vaping in the Valley,” an informational event. They were informed of the scope of the problem in no uncertain terms.

“I have not seen anything that challenges a system and parents and teachers and administrators like this does,” Superintendent Todd White, who will retire in 2020 after more than three decades in education, said as he implored parents for help. “And it’s rapidly growing.”

Some of the vaping devices schools have confiscated in restrooms and hallways. Some look more like flash drives. Steven Senne, File AP Photo

Both local educators and national experts have called vaping a health epidemic among young people, many of whom have been swept up in an industry that is expected to be worth $26 billion by 2023 even though most states ban the sale of vaping products to those under 18. Scientific surveys have drawn the same conclusions that local parents and educators have anecdotally: E-cigarette use by young people has surged.

Some studies suggest that 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students use e-cigarettes.

“If this were an infectious disease, there would be pandemonium,” said Chris Jensen, a Blue Valley science teacher and medical doctor who has worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hosted the district’s informational event.

But combating vape use comes with special challenges.

Electronic cigarettes, or vape pens, rapidly heat liquid, usually containing nicotine, and release an odorless or flavored vapor.

The devices, many of which look like flash drives or pens, can be used covertly, making it hard for educators to spot at school or parents to find at home.

Students have been caught sticking them in the lips of water bottles and hiding them in sleeves and backpack straps. Occasionally, students have even been caught vaping in the back of classrooms or in busy hallways. But bathrooms and parking lots are the prime locations.

Another, more troubling, challenge: Though such products have been on the market since 2003, some parents and kids aren’t aware of the severe health risks of devices marketed as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

Matt Bice, an Olathe West sophomore, says he sees students vaping at school. Though he’s only tried it once and has no plans to do so again, he said many of his peers think any risks of vaping are not as severe as cigarettes.

“I think they think smoking cigarettes is much more detrimental to them,” the 16-year-old said. “If you lay it all out on paper, it probably looks better than cigarettes.”

Parents need some educating, too.

“There are kids who have expressed to us addiction to vaping,” Blue Valley North Principal Tyson Ostroski said. “And we have talked to parents who have purchased vaping for their students because they believe it alleviates anxiety.”

But that philosophy — bolstered by advertisements — is not true, according to heath experts. Scientists may not have had enough time to understand all the long-term impacts of vaping, but it poses clear health risks.

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Electronic cigarettes with USB chargers have become popular among high school students. Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

‘The Nike of e-cigarettes’

Alvie Cater, an assistant superintendent in the DeSoto school district, says he suspects that teenagers and young people don’t understand the risks of vaping.

“ A lot of that is attributed to the marketing,” Cater said. Sometimes the devices are sold as flavored cartridges packaged to look like candy. “Some of it looks fun. It looks delicious.”

But e-cigarettes still contain highly addictive nicotine. In addition, flavoring chemicals found in e-cigarette aerosol include diacetyl, which has been linked to lung cancer. Lead and tin have been found in some cartridges.

Because of the simplicity of the design, users can buy devices and later add other illegal substances, such as marijuana oil or hallucinogens.

And while e-cigarettes often contain less total nicotine than cigarettes, the devices often allow users to inhale more efficiently, thus absorbing more nicotine and other harmful substances, Jensen said.

“It’s not just harmless water,” he said. “It’s not just water vapor.”

Scientists say studies are insufficient to support some industry claims that the devices help smokers quit traditional cigarettes. And other studies suggest that young people who vape are more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future because they are more likely to develop an addiction to nicotine, which can stunt brain development in teenagers and increase risks of heart attacks.

The popular Juul, a sleek, pocket-sized vaporizer, comes in flavored cartridges — mint, mango, creme — that contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

“They are like the Nike of e-cigarettes,” said Tim Brady, Olathe Schools’ liaison for Safe/Drug Free Schools. “They created a product marketed to teens that’s appealing in terms of how they advertise it.”

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A Juul electronic cigarette can be plugged into a USB port on a laptop. Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

Though they are not supposed to be sold to people under 18, the devices are easy enough to obtain. Students have been found with “hundreds if not thousands of dollars on them” from selling vaporizers, said White, the Blue Valley superintendent.

“We were surprised at the creativity that these manufacturers used to make these devices,” Cater, of DeSoto, said. “It didn’t look like a device that could be used for such a purpose.”

That means students can often easily pull off vaping in public areas without detection.

Bice said he can always tell when he’s walked into a bathroom where people are vaping.

“You just know,” he said. “There’s just a smell in the air and a quick look to see if you are a teacher or an administrator.”

It’s the difficulty of detection that has also concerned parents.

“Cigarette smoking burns. And it stinks. And it’s got that stigma,” said Jon Schram, husband of Blue Valley parent Jill Schram. “This doesn’t burn. It doesn’t stink. But it’s even more addictive.”

Finding solutions

In the past three years, when e-cigarette use seemed to explode on local school campuses, many administrators were left spinning.

“At that point we were like, ‘Whoa, what’s this?’” Ostroski said. “We didn’t experience it growing up. We didn’t experience it 10 years ago. It was brand new.”

Now districts have a renewed focus on dissuading young people from vaping and new strategies to eradicate the practice, especially at school.

Most have updated policies to include e-cigarettes, or in DeSoto’s case, any “nicotine-delivery devices.”

And more recently, many districts have made vaping an offense equal to using tobacco or alcohol at school. Kansas statutes also prohibit the possession of electronic cigarettes by anyone under 18.

In Blue Valley, students caught selling vaping devices or other drugs may face long-term suspension. Students caught vaping at school are suspended for five days. But students can reduce those days to three if they take an MD Anderson Cancer Center online tobacco and nicotine education program called ASPIRE.

The program doesn’t just outline health risks, it includes functions such as a calculator that shows how much a JUUL or vape cartridges cost per month, said Brady of Olathe, which also uses ASPIRE as a way for students to avoid more suspension days.

“A lot of it is self evaluation,” said Brady. “When they make the decisions internally versus being told by an adult ‘don’t do this’ we get better results.”

Educational programs for parents explain the serious consequences of vaping and offer tips on talking about it with teens or children. Districts also sometimes help connect students with community health programs that combat addiction.

Other kids, tired and frustrated of seeing vaping at school, are more frequently reporting users in person or through a school app that keeps them anonymous, Ostroski said.

Several school representatives told The Star they’ve seen some improvement in the number of students caught vaping at school as a result of policy changes and education programs. Some have also chosen to dispatch adult monitors to bathrooms and hallways at different times of the day.

But the stealthiness of the product still makes it inevitable that kids will keep using at school.

Bice, the Olathe West student, expects future strategies to focus more on rehabilitation.

“I feel like if a kid is vaping at school, it has come to a level of addiction,” Bice said. “I’d like to see the district help people get past it.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.