Vexed by vaping: Schools see increase in use, find it harder to police

  • A man blows a cloud of smoke from a vape pipe in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The use of electronic smoking devices, or “vaping,” remains a problem in East Hawaii high schools, and it’s becoming more difficult to detect, local administrators say.

“It is a problem, it is a big problem,” said Hilo High School Principal Bob Dircks.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarettes produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals to help make the aerosol, which users then inhale into their lungs.

The aerosol is not “harmless ‘water vapor,’” and can contain nicotine, ultra-fine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, chemical flavorings linked to a serious lung disease, volatile organic compounds, cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead, the CDC said.

Bystanders can breathe in this aerosol when users exhale it into the air.

E-cigarettes also can be used to deliver marijuana and other drugs.

Dircks believes students who “vape” are addicted and find any opportunity “to draw on the vape,” whether it’s in a bathroom, sometimes a classroom, or walking down the hallway, he said

But with small devices that can be odorless, the problem can be hard to catch.

“The kids are finding ways to do it,” Dircks said. “Back in the day, you could smell (the smoke) in the toilet … but not any more.”

In the past, many vapes would emit an odor, and if you couldn’t smell it, “you would see the (vapor) cloud. Now you don’t see the cloud, and you don’t smell it.”

Because it is hard to detect, Dircks said it might look like vaping at his school is diminishing, but actually is “very prevalent.”

Vaping could occur “at any given time, when the child or the student feels it is safe to do it. … It’s not like you have to go into a remote area to do it. There’s no trace, no tell-tale smoke.”

Hilo High has developed a protocol to address vaping using Chapter 19, the student misconduct and discipline code.

“If you’re caught once, we take it away,” Dircks said. “It’s contraband. You’re not supposed to have it.”

Caught twice, and it’s considered “insubordinate behavior,” and that could mean an in-school suspension. Those caught three or four times could face suspension from school.

Dircks said the school is “trying to curtail the use by making it obvious (that if) you do this, you’re not going to be able to come to school.”

Vaping is disruptive to learning, because “kids will need to leave class whenever they feel the need to satisfy their need,” he said.

Kelcy Koga, principal at Waiakea High School, shared similar sentiments.

Some devices are “about the size of a jump drive,” and are now vaporless, he said, while before, “you would see a large puff of smoke or that cloud.”

Koga said at Waiakea High, at least once a week a student is found in possession of vaping paraphernalia.

“We rarely catch students smoking cigarettes any more, and a lot of them have these vaping products,” he said. “I think throughout every high school and even middle schools are having issues with kids vaping.”

It has become more prevalent in recent years, he said.

“I think many students are under the misconception it’s safe in comparison to smoking,” said Koga, but research has found it’s “just as dangerous or even more dangerous health-wise. I think some students are under the misconception it’s a safe product, and it really isn’t.”

At Waiakea High, Koga said a first vaping offense results in a one-day suspension.

“We’ve seen the increase, (but) we honestly don’t get too many repeat offenders,” said Koga. “But we do realize it’s a dangerous product because I think now you can put anything in there … it could be an illegal substance, could be nicotine, could be anything, and that’s what makes the product that much more dangerous, especially in the school.”

Keaau High School Principal Dean Cevallos said he encounters at least two students vaping each week.

And between Cevallos and his three vice principals, “we have a pretty well-established box of vapes we have taken throughout the year.”

While vaping has been around for “at least a decade,” he said, “we’ve only recently seen it in the past three years this bad in the high school.”

According to Cevallos, his campus had received a grant from the Big Island Substance Abuse Council, which provided for a counselor on campus, and as a consequence of vaping, students were required to have three rehabilitation sessions with the counselor.

However, when the counselor wasn’t regularly available at the school, Cevallos said the punishment had to change.

Now, for first offenses, students caught vaping receive a suspension from school.

“We want to make a point that it’s not acceptable,” Cevallos said. “… Kids are being so inappropriate that they’re smoking in class. It’s becoming quite an issue. … Kids know they can blow the smoke in their shirts and jackets, and it won’t be seen.”

It’s a “huge insubordination issue because they know better and have been educated on it to not smoke on campus,” he said.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said vaping is a class “C” offense in Chapter 19.

Tobacco products or electronic smoking devices found in a student’s possession will be seized by school administration and forfeited to law enforcement.

“The disciplinary action for a vaping incident is based on the administrator’s investigation, which includes the allegations of the incident, allegations substantiated, witness summary, summary of investigation and rationale for disciplinary action,” Chambers said. “In addition, the school administrator will determine the five factors — intention, nature and severity, impact of the offense on others, age of the offender, repeat offender status and disciplinary action.”

It is unknown how many vaping incidents were reported in the 2018-19 school year. Chambers said the DOE does not collect data only on vaping violatons.

Chambers said one school-level approach to raise awareness of the dangers of vaping is to encourage peer-to-peer education.

“Many schools participate in anti-vaping campaigns aimed at their peers,” she said. “For example, the Olelo Youth Xchange video competition has a ‘No Vape’ category for students to participate in.”

Dircks said Hilo High has been working with an anti-vaping coalition to talk with select groups of students about the dangers of vaping.

While not all students vape, the ones that do might need help, he said.

“I think it’s beyond the home. I think it’s beyond the school. Someone has to take these kids who have been caught and have an addiction (and) get them into programs … help them get over it.”

At Waiakea High, Koga said the American Cancer Society does a presentation about vaping in the school’s health course.

Cevallos said there needs to be more community education.

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“It’s really a must they understand how harmful this is for our kids. … It’s a need for them to be educated on what this does, how powerful this substance is.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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