School disciplinary incidents increase as more students use e-cigs, officials seek remedy

What is the Juul e-cigarette?

The Botany Bay demonstrates what the Juul e-cigarette is and why it has recently become so popular.
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The Botany Bay demonstrates what the Juul e-cigarette is and why it has recently become so popular.

The national increase in teenagers smoking e-cigarettes is upending Lexington high schools as well, with disciplinary incidents increasing and adults struggling to address the health concerns.

Betsy Rains, principal of Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, estimates that at least 1,000 of her students — half of the student body —are using e-cigarettes. At Lafayette High School, where the incidents of e-cig confiscations has tripled since last year, parent Jennifer McChord was so concerned that she approached Principal Bryne Jacobs about it.

Frederick Douglass High School Principal Lester Diaz, whose staff disciplines students three to four times per month for vaping, said a video production class in the schools’ IT Academy created infomercials for teachers to help them identify vaping materials.

Those working on these efforts welcomed the recent news that Juul, an e-cigarette manufacturer, was suspending sales of most of its flavored e-cigarette pods, and that U.S. Food and Drug Administration is requiring that flavored e-cigs be sold only in age-restricted locations and if sold on-line, under heightened age verification.

Some Lexington principals say that while vaping has been praised for helping adults curb their nicotine addiction, it has increased addiction among their students.

Diaz said vaping has hit his campus with an impact similar to what occurred when teens started using social media and Lexington parents, teachers, and administrators have to adapt and come together to confront it.

“Students on campus, off-campus, at sporting events, in the neighborhood, they are experimenting with these things that could have lasting, potentially dangerous effects,” said Diaz, who has broached e-cig use at student and parent meetings.

The most popular product is Juulwhich looks like a USB flash drive and comes in popular flavors. E-cigs often don’t have an odor and therefore are often harder to detect on high school campuses than traditional cigarettes or marijuana.

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky expressed concern in a recent opinion piece that e-cig use will reverse progress made in Kentucky in reducing smoking and “related disease and death.”

According to the FDA, the number of U.S. high school students who reported being current e-cigarette users increased 78 percent between 2017 and 2018 to 3.05 million.

Rather than a punitive approach, Fayette County school district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said, the district’s goal is to work with families to get support for students.

That said, it’s illegal for minors to purchase or use e-cigarettes and other tobacco products in Kentucky. The use or possession of e-cigarettes is prohibited in the Fayette County student code of conduct, and is subject to the same disciplinary consequences as any other tobacco product.

The first approach includes confiscating the contraband and offering smoking cessation support, said Deffendall. Principals say they generally give students in-school suspension when they catch them. An out of school suspension is for more serious offenses, such as trafficking or repeated infractions, Deffendall said.

With the increase in the popularity and use of e-cigarettes among teens, there has been an uptick in disciplinary events involving tobacco products. The Fayette County school district does not keep data separately for e-cigarettes, but disciplinary incidents involving all tobacco more than doubled from 2015 to 2017:

2015-16: 98 events with 11 resulting in out-of-school suspension

2016-17: 121 events with 6 resulting in out-of-school suspension

2017-18: 225 events with 32 resulting in out-of-school suspension

2018-19 (Between August 15 and October 31): 96 events with 14 resulting in out-of-school suspension

“It is important to keep this data in context by noting that we have more than 12,000 high school students and these numbers represent individual behavior incidents and could include the same student with multiple infractions, “ Deffendall said.

The policing is not limited to school campuses.

“We’re definitely part of the fight of keeping vapes in the hands of adults not children,” said Matt Saville, General Manager at Botany Bay, a Lexington store that sells e-cigs. Saville checks IDs of people under 30 who buy e-cig or tobacco related products.

“No high schooler that Juuls (who smokes e-cigs) thinks they’re doing something harmful. None of the students seem to understand how the nicotine addiction works or how dangerous it is, “said Sanaa Kahloon, a sophomore at Dunbar.

Parent Jennifer McChord said she went to school officials to see if parents could help because she was hearing “good kids who are intelligent” saying that e-cigs were “no big deal’ and not addictive.” McChord is hoping that ultimately a student group will lead an education effort.

“It’s being experimented with fairly pervasively,” said Jacobs, who has seen confiscations of e-cig devices triple in a year. He said some parents are aware that their children vape and others don’t know what a Juul is. It’s easy to mistake the Juul for a flash drive. Lafayette may host parent workshops.

Rains is concerned that students don’t seem to be comprehending when she tells them that one “pod” is the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, she said. The principals are concerned about long term health risks — “these things are fairly new and we really don’t know what that will be,” Jacobs said.

Rains said she emailed parents an article on Juul and had met with teachers in small groups to show them what Juuls look like. Dunbar’s student newspaper, PLD Lamplighter, plans to address the problem in an upcoming issue, she said.

E-cig use is an issue at high schools elsewhere in Kentucky, too, and is an indication that more mental health services are needed in schools, one student said.

“ It’s easy to say that the Juuls rise to popularity is attributed to things we often associate with high school students like peer pressure, impressionability, and the want to fit in, but, as a student, I’ve noticed that my peers will often use it in times of stress or anxiety as they claim it helps to calm their nerves,” said Sufia Ahmed, a senior at Somerset High School.