An increase in instances of students being caught with vaping products on campus has prompted Lincoln County Schools to change the way it categorizes the materials.
“We’re re-classifying an e-cigarette from a tobacco product to drug paraphernalia because of what we’re finding students are putting into these vapes, Juuls and e-cigs,” said Associate Superintendent Aaron Allen said. “Not every kid is smoking drugs, but there’s the potential to have liquid drugs in these cartridges, more so than just your typical liquid nicotine. We’ve had some kids have had physical reactions that resulted in a hospital visit.”
Lincolnton High School and West Lincoln Middle School got permission to put the new policy in place earlier this year as a test run. The result has been been a significant decrease in the number of students caught with vaping materials, Allen said.
East Lincoln and North Lincoln high schools, meanwhile, have seen a high number of violations involving vaping.
The evolving types of e-cigarettes have made them difficult for teachers and administrators to monitor. Juuls look like a USB drive and are charged via a USB port, the “teardrop” vaping systems can look like a piece of jewelry. Students also have become creative in hiding vapes and their use. That’s made easier because e-cigarettes produce little odor.
“The shapes, sizes and colors of vapes change all the time,” East Lincoln High School principal Marybeth Avery said. “Sometimes, you’re not sure what you’re looking at. They hide them in highlighter cartridges, tampon applicators and many other places. They will lean over into their book bags, take a hit off their Juul and put their mouth to their sleeve or hoodie and blow out the vapor. Out in the parking lot we can see the big vape clouds.”
While it’s a common perception that e-cigarettes are harmless, can help smokers quit and are not addictive, some vape products such as Juul contain more nicotine than cigarettes. Drugs such as synthetic marijuana also can be ingested with them.
“If you read the research, the nicotine contained in a Juul pod is roughly equal to the amount of nicotine in a pack of cigarettes,” Avery said. “It’s not extinguishing or taking away the desire, it’s just replacing the cigarette with the nicotine that comes in the Juul pod. It’s really the same thing, if not worse than smoking.”
Avery said he recently spoke to a freshman who said he wished he’d never tried vaping because it’s so addictive, he can’t stop.
“They really don’t know the long-term health impacts,” Avery said.
“It was rough”
The first Juul sold in 2015 contained 5 percent nicotine, while others had 1 to 2 percent. The company has since increased Juul’s nicotine concentrations through a patented form of nicotine salt.
“Last year it was rough – our number of incidents were in the double digits,” Avery said. “We’ve seen improvement this year but we still have some students who have multiple infractions. I think overall the students have learned to keep it off school grounds but there are some that can’t manage to do so.”
Avery and North Lincoln High School principal Mitch Sherrill have large collections of confiscated vaping paraphernalia in their offices. Some will released to parents and the rest will be destroyed at the end of the school year.
“We saw them a little bit last year but this year there’s been a marked increase,” Sherrill said. “We’re dealing with them daily. What’s even worse, we’re seeing it as a device to facilitate the use of drugs like synthetic marijuana which is a felony. We’ve had to tell kids not to wear their hoodies up around their heads because some of them had a little slot cut right below the neck line where they’d release the vapor.”
Sherrill said North Lincoln started letting students only take bathroom breaks one at a time because groups were using restrooms for vaping.
“It’s been a challenge,” he said. “We’ve had to go away from the electronic cigarette policy and treat it as a disruption of school. They’re texting each other to meet up so they can take hits off the vapes.”
Vaping has become an issue district-wide from elementary through high school.
“We’ve seen e-cigarette usage take off in all zones within the county so there’s really not any area that’s immune to it,” Allen said. “It’s across all socioeconomic, racial and gender barriers. There’s not one certain population of student or community that’s doing it. It’s not rampant but it’s consistent enough across all zones that it’s becoming an issue of concern that we need to be proactive about.”
Allen added that tobacco use also is rising in LCS, but not as much as vaping.
“(It’s) creating a different dynamic,” he explained. “We’ve had to educate ourselves and our parents, yet all the while the kids know what’s going on and know how to hide these things.”