(Courtesy photo) Vaping devices, like the ones pictured here, are often mistaken for other items, which makes it difficult in the battle against vaping in local schools.

No smoking gun: Vaping creates a number of issues for schools

For Tuscola County schools, vaping is a problem they’d rather not have.

More students in both high school – 38.5 percent in 2018 – and middle school – 30.2 percent – are vaping than ever before. Vaping – the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, often referred to as vapor, produced by an e-cigarette or similar vaping device – is popular among teens of both sexes and all school groups.

In middle school it was equally popular with males (38.1 percent) and females (25 percent), with whites (25 percent) and Hispanics (46.2 percent), with A-B students (16.7 percent) and D-F students (23.1 percent), according to a 2017-18 Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth (MiPHY) study of Tuscola County students. The study came up with similar numbers at the high school. Vaping was equally done by freshmen (23.2 percent) as juniors (43.6 percent), by males (32.3 percent) as females (31.5 percent), by whites (30.9 percent) as Hispanics (45.9 percent) and by A-B students (29.2 percent) as by D-F students (36.9 percent).

And unlike smoking, which had dropped to historic lows among students – 3.7 percent among Tuscola County middle school students and 7.6 percent among high schoolers – vaping just seems to be increasing in popularity among teens.

“I would probably say we’ve noticed a change away from actual smoking,” said Matt Drake, Kingston Community Schools superintendent and high school principal. “We’ve had more vaping infractions, vaping paraphernalia situations this year than finding someone with a pack of Marlboros.”

“In terms of the youth, smoking’s out,” said Reese High School principal Brian Galsterer. “Smoking a cigarette is out. That was the craze when I was in school. You weren’t supposed to do it so that is why you did it. The data was out there, the research was out there that it was bad and, by gosh, smoking (didn’t stop). I’ve been in public education for 20 years and I can remember chasing kids through the woods. Smoking was a battle.

“Vaping is now smoking. ….It is the same thing, it is just a different product.”

Unlike the battle against cigarette smoking, however, school officials are at a more distinct disadvantage where vaping is concerned.

One problem is the e-cigarette devices. They are made to resemble other objects, like pens and flash drives.

“They can look like you don’t know what they are,” said Barry Markwart, Mayville Community Schools superintendent. “The vape pens themselves just look like a regular ink pen. The cap is just a different color. You can pull the cap off the pen to vape out of it. So it looks just like a pen in class. You don’t even know the difference.

“They can look like all kinds of things and the teachers don’t know it.”

“I am looking at my desk,” said Galsterer, “and I have a collection of vapes I have confiscated. I am learning through that that they come in all shapes and sizes. In terms of that, it makes them a little bit hard to detect.”

The other challenge is the odor, or rather the occasional lack of it. Smoking a cigarette left a distinct odor both in the place where it was smoked – often a school restroom – and on any person in the vicinity, though more powerfully on the person doing the smoking. Because what is being inhaled and exhaled in vaping is essentially a nicotine-laced water vapor, the only smell comes from whatever flavor was added to the fluid. Teens tend to be attracted to sweet, fruity-flavored pods or pouches of the product.

“I would say the biggest challenge is that there is no odor,” said Stephen Bouvy, Millington Junior/Senior High School principal. ”Back in the times when people would smoke cigarettes and things like that, there would always be the odor that would go along with it, and it was easier for school staff to catch you.

“They are more easily concealed than before. You don’t have the smell when you are searching and things like that.”

“As far as smoking in school – and this is my fourth year here – we have had minimal problems of actually smelling any smoke,” said Markwart. “In fact, I don’t even remember in four years if there has been any report to me of anyone smelling smoke. Now I’m not saying it hasn’t happened or they haven’t done it and covered it up, I’m just saying we haven’t issues with that. Now, with the vaping, though, it is a whole different element that has opened up. It doesn’t smell like smoke. You don’t know if they are in the bathrooms spraying perfume on them or spraying cologne on them or if they are in there vaping. It is not like you can open up a stall and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing in there?’”

Some school officials, however, have trained their noses to detect vaping. The sweet air “is one way you can identify them,” said Chad Daniels, Cass City Junior/Senior High School principal, who added it smells different than perfume or cologne. “No, it doesn’t smell like a perfume. It smells like a fruit. You know it when you smell it. I can recognize it real quick. When you know what you’re smelling for, you know it anywhere. Once I am in that vicinity, I just know it. You just know it.”

Others still are learning.

“We’re kind of at the point here where we’re beginning to recognize it as distinctive (the smell),” said George Rierson, Unionville-Sebewaing Area Schools superintendent, “but we have not dealt with it so much that everybody here knows. I would say some of our staff, our teachers may not know exactly what that scent is, but our administrators do.”

But there’s a second issue with that smell – time.

“It is probably the smell, and the intensity of the smell and how long it takes the smell to clear out,” said Bouvy. ”With vaping the smell isn’t going to stick around as long as if somebody set something on fire.”

And, because it is not smoke, the vapors can be exhaled, or not.

“I’ve seen people sitting in cars and blow this stuff out and it is like a smoke bomb has gone off,” Drake said. “It seems like, to some degree, it is more smoky than cigarettes. But I also believe I have seen people just kind of swallow it. They hit the pen, take a gulp and nothing comes out.

“I do think it is possible you can hit that thing and not emit anything, if you are trying not to emit anything.”

Because of that, and the way e-cigarettes are designed to look like other things, students can vape almost anywhere and at almost every age.

“At the younger levels teachers aren’t thinking a kid is going to have a vape pen on them in class, or even vape in class,” said Markwart. “We haven’t had any actual incidences of vaping in class, but they could be doing that and we don’t know it. Teachers are going to be a little naïve in that aspect because no one is going to do that in class. Well, obviously there has been a problem with that, of kids vaping in class. Because it is a vape, you can’t tell. I’ve told our teachers if you smell something sweet that is a different smell nowadays, there is probably some vaping going on and you’d better give me a call and I’ll check it out.”

“It certainly it would be much easier to hit a vape pen in a bathroom stall or a locker room or somewhere,” said Drake, “than it would be to light up a cigarette.”

Get caught vaping, however, and there will be consequences. Most schools attach the same penalties to vaping as they did smoking. Usually a first offense includes a suspension, with ensuing violations bringing harsher punishment. Nearly all of them also consider possession of an e-cigarette or a vaping pod as they would possession of a pack of cigarettes.

Some students have argued what they are doing is harmless.

“When I have confiscated vapes in the past, the typical response would be, ‘it is just the juice, Mr. G,’” Galsterer said. “So, okay, what does that mean? As I have learned, it means it doesn’t have the nicotine. Well, I don’t know that without testing, so currently we are saying that is not welcome here on campus. You are not allowed to have that. I would give you a consequence just as if it were a Marlboro Red or chewing tobacco. I don’t test it. I don’t have the capability.”

He agreed it doesn’t seem fair to treat having juice, nicotine and THC, a marijuana derivative, the same, but that is the way it is.

“Do I have to have a CSI lab?” he said. “How do I detect that and be able to penalize students fairly and appropriately? I don’t want to overdo it or certainly underdo it.”

Millington, however, follows the law.

“Way back in 2003 when I first got here, anytime we would get a child with tobacco products and they were under 18 years of age, we’d call the police and we’d have them write them for being a minor in possession,” said Superintendent Larry Kroswek. “So we do the same thing with vaping. If it is nicotine or some controlled substance that they are underage for, we call the police and they write them for minor in possession.

“Back in the day, that really eliminated a lot of tobacco products on campus. And it probably will eliminate a lot of vaping on campus as well if everybody follows through with that. What you do is you hit them in the pocketbook and the parents, when they get home, will kick their butt and say ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ Back in the day it was like a $110 fine and ‘we don’t want to be paying that fine.’”

But school officials want to do more than police vaping. They also are working to educate students to the dangers of this growing habit.

“The real challenge,” said Owendale-Gagetown Schools Superintendent Terri Falkenburg, “is getting children to understand the harmful effects that vaping can have on them. … To them, it is a new fad and they like the looks of them and the flavors of the oils. They do not realize that vaping puts chemicals into their body and can become an addicting habit.”

Most county school districts host presentations early in the school year to inform students of the dangers of vaping. OK to Say, law enforcement and others have come to Millington to address these issues, Bouvy said, “just so the students know it is something that is harmful and is not allowed in school.”

Some districts, like Millington, include similar information in health classes.

“Education is the only way we can do that (fight back),” said Galsterer. “It is more prevalent than what the common person thinks.”

Cass City started the school year with the educational effort, aimed at parents and students alike, including a building-wide assembly about the dangers and consequences of vaping. “And then just being really adamant and vigilant in pursuing it,” said Daniels. “Making sure our staff knows what to look for and being sure when we see it that we aggressively go after it. Then when we do catch it, making sure there is a lot of communication with the parents and those kids, to try to continue to stop it.”

Several school officials said a key to stemming the vaping tide is educating parents. Shelly Grifka, from the Huron County Health Dept.’s Substance Use Disorder Prevention office, urged distribution of “Vaping: What You Need to Know And How to Talk With Your Kids,” from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, to help parents understand vaping’s appeal to young people and provide practical advice on what to say and do if they are concerned that their child may try or is already vaping.

“Many parents we talk with are unaware of what vaping is and unprepared to have conversations with their kids or even know what to look for. Conversely, teens may not fully understand that vaping has the potential to be just as addictive as smoking tobacco,” said Fred Muench, president and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “Teens may think too that there are ‘just vaping flavoring,’ but some vaping devices do not have nicotine-free options and teens may not know what they are actually using. There are significant, concerning unknowns, including vaping’s long-term health consequences.”

Falkenburg’s district also sent parents a letter educating them about vaping and where young people hide their vapes, such as in their wallets or in the small pockets of their pants or bags.

“We have had to adjust our student handbook at the high school,” said Drake, “to more thoroughly cover vaping and vaping utensils. It didn’t used to be in there. That was something.”

Galsterer, though, isn’t sure any of this is going to change anything. His school hosted an assembly this year targeted specifically at vaping.

“I thought he had a good message,” Galsterer said. “But the bottom line is kids don’t care what they put in their bodies. The marketing beats the science, if you will. ‘If you want to be cool, you gotta Juul (one of the top ecigarette brands).’ I don’t know about the marketing, but that seems to be the company that really has made an impact on the kids.

“It is the power of marketing and it has a brand. That brand is cool. And the marketers and the companies have made it cool to do.”

Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at haney@tcadvertiser.com.

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