Industry News

Vaping Enters the Classroom

Vaping Moves From the Bathroom to the Classroom

Schools try to outsmart students who hide e-cigarettes in shirt sleeves and highlighter pens

vape moreBy Julie Jargon - The Wall Street Journal

Kids used to duck into the school bathroom to sneak a drag on a cigarette. But with the electronic kind, they are becoming increasingly daring, often vaping right under their teachers' noses. 

I spoke to more than two dozen teachers, students and administrators across the country about the create ways high-school and even middle-school kids have found to hide vape pens and take hits of nicotine--and sometimes marijuana--in class. Students conceal them in highlighter pens, pencil cases and long-sleeve shirts. Girls hide them in their bras and headbands. They inhale when the teacher isn't looking and the vapor they exhale dissipates quickly, though the flavored kind can leave a fruity fragrance in the air. 

Pam Blackwell, a substitute teacher in Pendleton, Ind., was alerted by a student assistant to two freshman boys who were crouched down, vaping behind binders they had placed upright on their desks. She texted the school secretary and a few minutes later, the assistant principal came in and asked the boys to follow him. A search of their backpacks yielded the vape pens, and the boys were suspended for five days. 

"We did so much education in schools about the danger of smoking cigarettes and then cigarette smoking declined, but now kids feels like vaping is a safter alternative," Ms. Blackwell said. 

E-cigarettes are a 21st-century phenomenon. They first hit the U.S. market more than a decade ago but have grown in popularity during the past few years. The battery-operated devices have become increasingly high-tech and stylized, with some resembling USB drives that can plug into a computer to charge. (It's also another way students can slip them into class unnoticed by teachers.)

White cigarette smoking has declined among middle- and high-school students, e-cigarettes use is on the rise. Almost 21% of U.S. high-school students and 5% of middle-school students now vape, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. E-cigarette use increased 79% among high-school students between 2017 and 2018 and 48% among middle-school students, the FDA says. 

"You're pretty much an oddball if you haven't tried it," said Elise Parkman, a 16-year-old high-school senior in Plainfield, Ill., who added she tried vaping about five times before deciding to stop. "It didn't seem like something worthwhile to get addicted to. One of my close friends does it all the time." 

Vaping has become a nation-wide public-health concern, according to the FDA. Even e-cigarettes labeled as "nicotine free" contain toxic chemicals, it says. Teens and young adults in eight states who had reported having vaped have been hospitalized in recent weeks with severe breathing problems or lung disease. But awareness of the health risks of e-cigarettes remains low among young people, prompting the FDA's recent youth prevention campaign. 

Some administrators are taking a hard-line approach, by treating vaping like smoking. Schools in Arizona, New York and Illinois have installed vape detectors in the bathrooms. The governor of New Hampshire last month signed a law prohibiting all vaping devices from school grounds. 

The Lefors Independent School District in Lefors, Texas, was having such a big problem with students hiding vape pens in their long-sleeve shirts and exhaling the vapor back into their sleeves that it now requires students to roll their sleeves up to their elbows before entering the school. Administrators there got the idea from the nearby Channing Independent School District, which did the same thing last spring. 

Lefors, a district of 165 K-12 students, also has taken other steps to combat what it says is a problem that has come to its attention during the past year. District Superintendent Kelley Porter estimates that 18% of the district's junior-high and high-school students have been caught vaping at school and says officials have confiscated several vape pens. She said she suspects many more students vape but haven't been caught.

Students reported seeing football players vaping during the three-block walk between the school and the field, so the district now requires them to ride a bus to practice. A sixth-grader who was caught vaping twice at school--one time he hid the pen in his boot--had to do a research project on the harms of vaping and present it to all of the students just before school let out for the summer. The district developed a new sign-out procedure for using the bathroom during class, to keep better track of students. This fall the district is adding a resource offer three times a week to help enforce the measures. 

Brody Seely, a 16-year-old of Lefors High School, said he used to vape in class. When he was questioned once by a teacher about a fruity smell around him, he said he was wearing cologne. Officials searched him, but he had hidden his vape pen in his waistband. 

He said if his fellow students had been smarter about vaping at school, the new restrictions wouldn't have been put in place. "They were being stupid about how they did it and who they did it around," he said. "You could just sit there and do it in front of the teacher all day. It's not as easy now because the teachers are wathcing for it."

E-cigarette company Juul Labs Inc., under pressure from regulators and health advocates, has taken steps to curb use among minors, such as no longer selling flavored pods at retail locations, removing its Facebook and Instagram accounts and supporting state efforts to raise the purchasing age for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21. "We do not want non-nicotine users to buy Juul products, and are committed to preventing underage access to our products," a Juul Labs spokesman said. 

Ms. Porter said the Lefors district's new rules have cut down on vaping on campus, but that she realizes kids can still find ways to sneak the pens into school: "We're pretty sure a kid was hiding one in his underwear."

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