By Gabriella Borter and Matthew Lavietes
(Reuters) – Students caught vaping in school can expect a lot more than a warning or detention in one North Texas district starting this fall. They will be forced to attend a special, isolated disciplinary school for a month.
“Hopefully it’s more of a deterrent,” said Michael Stevens, superintendent of Channing Independent School District, about 50 miles northwest of Amarillo, referring to the new policy. “It’s a severe health problem.”
Channing is not the only district getting stricter about vaping. Another Texas school system has hired a resource officer to assist with vaping prevention. Thousands of schools across the country are installing sensors in bathrooms to catch offenders. One school in Alabama has gone as far as to remove bathroom stall doors.
The new measures follow the disturbing rise of a mysterious respiratory illness that U.S. health officials have linked to e-cigarette use. So far, six deaths have been reported by state or federal officials.
The American Medical Association on Monday urged Americans to stop using electronic cigarettes and vape pens until scientists understand the root cause of the respiratory illnesses.
In recent years, vaping has exploded in popularity among young people and adults alike. More than 3 million U.S. high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018, a 78% increase, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Schools nationwide have banned e-cigarettes on school property in the last few years. Disciplinary measures for student violators have ranged from warnings to suspensions.
But high schools and middle schools still struggle to stop students from smoking e-cigarettes on their premises. Not only are they easy to conceal, resembling USB flash drives, but they produce no smoke and often emit no scent.
With the recent deaths and illness, efforts to stop vaping on campus have taken on new urgency, and schools are looking for fresh approaches to tackle the problem.
INSTALLING SENSORS, REMOVING DOORS
The Channing district, which has about 170 students, tried to stem vaping last year by requiring students to roll up their sleeves when entering school in an attempt to prevent them from hiding e-cigarettes.
It also enforced in-school suspension for students who were caught vaping. Now, offenders will have to attend the disciplinary school for a month. In the first four weeks of the school year, no students in Channing have been caught vaping and none have been sent to the disciplinary school, which Stevens said is run by the school district “in an isolated setting” about 30 miles away.
He expected that will change. “I’m not naive enough to think they’re not sneaking around and trying it,” Stevens said.
Hundreds of U.S. school districts have ordered vaping sensors for bathrooms, according to IPVideoCorp, which launched one of the first sensors on the market in April.
David Antar, president of IPVideoCorp, said the number of weekly requests for the sensors from school districts has in the last month almost tripled to more than 200. Since April, the company has sold sensors to schools in 46 states.
“The demand for this, especially with school just starting, has gone through the roof,” Antar said.
Wilson High School in Florence, Alabama has gone farther by removing the doors from stalls in the boys’ bathroom to prevent students from vaping, local TV station WAFF 48 reported.
Principal Gary Horton told the TV station that the rule went into effect after a student was found unconscious on the bathroom floor from excessive vaping.
Administrators at Wilson High School did not respond to requests for comment.
E-cigarettes were introduced to the U.S. market 15 years ago as safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes, which kill up to half of all lifetime users, according to the World Health Organization. Manufacturers, including the market leader Juul Labs, have claimed that their target consumers are adults addicted to cigarettes.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has condemned Juul for advertising their products to youth in schools and falsely calling them “totally safe” while the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes are unknown.
Gregory Conley, a spokesman for the American Vaping Association, pointed out that the rise in teen vaping coincided with a decline in youth cigarette use.
“No youth should be experimenting with any adult substance, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We make tradeoffs,” said Conley. “We recognize that one bad situation is better than a worse situation.”
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Matthew Lavietes in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)