In one semester this school year, Stephen English said, 37 Pine Tree ISD students have been caught vaping on campus.
And he doesn’t think that’s even half the number of students using electronic cigarettes on campus — even in classrooms, and sometimes to ingest illegal substances.
“These things even look like pens or thumb drives,” said English, the district’s director of student services. “It’s hard to tell when a kid’s got a thumb drive or a kid’s got a Juul. They can do it so easily in class, it just dissipates and all you’re left with is the smell.”
One of the reasons so many students are vaping on campuses is because the devices are so easily concealed. Students can hide an e-cigarette in their jacket or shirt, and exhale the vapor into their clothing, which will filter and help dissipate it.
Students have even made their own devices, English said. Some look like an innocent pen.
The increasing popularity of e-cigarettes and the challenges they provide educators has officials at districts across the area scrambling for solutions. Policies are being written and revised to keep up with the latest devices, vape-sniffing dogs are being deployed, and sessions are offered to educate students about dangers associated with the practice.
Despite trying to teach students about health issues related to vaping, and one student winding up in the hospital because he had trouble breathing, English said vaping is prevailing on campus.
Fighting the trend
At Spring Hill High School, Assistant Principal Melinda Tidwell said she believes the campuses preventative measures are helping decrease vaping on campus.
Announcements on big screens in the cafeteria have graphics showing the dangers of vaping, she said. Administrators and teachers also are always visible on campus, which helps deter students from vaping at school.
Members of the East Texas Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse come to the campus to talk with freshmen about the dangers of vaping, Tidwell said.
When a student is caught vaping or with a vape pen, the punishment starts with three days of in-school suspension, she said. A citation for minor in possession is issued each subsequent incident, along with an increase in time served in ISS.
“While the student is in our ISS classroom, they’re expected to complete some informative reading and watch videos; we have a collection of articles related to the dangers of vaping,” she said. “They’re expected to read through all of that, watch the videos connected with the article and do a multiple choice assessment and writing assignment.”
Tidwell said the reading materials are related to the risks of vaping, deaths related to vaping and other illnesses caused by vaping. The goal is for students to understand it is not a healthy alternative to smoking cigarettes.
White Oak ISD school board president Eric Swanson said in a written statement the district is constantly reevaluating and adjusting policies to be more effective against vaping.
Part of those changes include the Kilgore police on campus with dogs trained to detect vape, different guest speakers on the dangers of vaping, White Oak Police Chief Terry Roach talking to the students about legal consequences of vaping, vaping and drug use lessons in a weekly bulletin from counselors and restrooms are monitored between classes, Swanson said.
The district also rewrote portions of the student code of conduct to directly address vaping and notified parents of the revised policy and punishment.
According to The Texas Tribune, some Texas students are facing felony charges because they have vape pens with THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. Using nicotine in vapes also is illegal for people under the age of 21.
At Longview High School, there have been instances where the police have been involved with a vaping incident on campus, Assistant Principal Terry Johnson said.
“Say they had a cigarette, we wouldn’t call the police for a cigarette. We would confiscate that item and they would receive their consequence and we would notify the parent,” Johnson said. “If there was any other illegal drug on campus, the police would be involved. We would notify them of what we have — regardless of how small the amount is — then they would determine if there was anything on the police side that needs to be done.”
The school has a discipline plan in place for vaping and tobacco products on campus.
For a first offense, Johnson said the student would spend three days in ISS, the parent is notified and the substance is confiscated. A second offense is suspension and a third offense punishment is alternative school.
However, THC results in automatic alternative school placement, he said.
English said THC also results in automatic alternative school placement at Pine Tree, where the campus is trying to be tough on discipline to decrease vaping.
“We know the long-term effects of smoking,” he said. “We don’t know the long-term effects of this. (We’re) trying to teach them that this is not as healthy as you think it is, because it’s passed off as a healthy alternative to smoking, and it’s not. We’ve already had a kid that had to go to the hospital for this, and we still are catching kids with them.”