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School districts counter vaping

“Everybody knows that smoking ain’t allowed in school.”

Grammar aside, that statement is just as true today as when Mötley Crüe recorded “Smoking in the Boys Room” way back in 1985.

But today, there aren’t the telltale odors and ashes that tipped off teachers and administrators. E-cigarettes are replacing smoking tobacco in society at large and also in our schools – presenting a whole new set of issues for teachers and administrators in Hays County’s four school districts.

It’s not just that “vaping” doesn’t produce the physical evidence that smoking cigarettes does – it’s a habit that can be immediately deadly. Eight people have died across the nation in recent weeks from vaping-related causes, and Walmart announced last week it will no longer sell e-cigarettes.

As Hays CISD Superintendent Dr. Eric Wright explained, e-cigarette manufacturers not only offer products in flavors that are attractive to kids, vaping devices are widely made to look like “iWatch covers, laser pointers and USB drives,” making it hard for educators to spot them. “Those devices were really made to be concealable (and) our kids were smart enough to be able to hide it from our teachers,” Wright said. “Some were vaping inside the classroom – either in the farthest corner from the teacher or just reaching down like they were getting something from their bag and taking a quick puff.”

Wright and district spokesman Tim Savoy have put together a “multi-pronged” approach to meet the problem head-on, and other school districts have also put together game plans.

In Wimberley High School, there are “weekly issues with vaping … as the students find the devices easy to conceal,” said Wimberley High Principal Jason Valentine.

The Wimberley ISD has brought in what it says is a nationally-known vape awareness and prevention program from the UT Austin CATCH program called “CATCH Your Breath.” The district  conducted the program at Danforth Junior High School and Wimberley High School for students in grades 7-12, district spokeswoman Deyanira Romo Rossell said. “We are completing post evaluation data in October. We plan to continue to provide the program and its annual updated version to all 7th graders and in our health class at the high school, which is a graduation requirement.”

From a disciplinary standpoint, a first offense in the WISD results in three days of in-school suspension and a citation from the Hays County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). Subsequent offenses bring a 45-day placement into AEP (Alternative Education Placement) with a 30-day review and citation by the HCSO.

In Dripping Springs, “The health and well-being of our students is our first priority,” high school principal Angela Gomez said. “We are aware of that the use of e-cigarettes has increased in our society, including use by teenagers.”

She said DSHS has taken several steps to discourage vaping, including “proactively communicating with students and parents about health risks and criminal consequences” as well as adult monitoring of hallways and bathrooms at lunch and in between periods. “Last year, in conjunction with the Hays County Sheriff’s Office, we changed our protocol to issue citations for violation,” Gamez added.

At the district level, School Resource Officers (SROs) visit with middle school students to educate them on the health and criminal risks; the code of student conduct has been updated to address the issue; and a committee of students, teachers, administrators, community members and law enforcement has been formed to work with the Texas School Safety Center.

In the DSISD a first offense brings a citation from the HCSO; students who offend a second time are given a citation as well as two days in DED (Disciplinary Extended Day).

Wright said the Hays CISD’s Superintendent Student Advisory Panel brought the issue to his attention.

“I asked them, ‘If you were in my shoes and could put a spotlight on anything that needed attention, what would it be?’ They all said vaping.”

Wright said the students’ concern was not only valid, but well-intended. “They saw a lot of their friends become addicted,” he said – something that’s not surprising considering that some e-cigarette pods contain as much nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes.

“Now, we have kids wanting to get off it – having elevated heart rates and respiratory issues” that a lot of times they don’t even realize are coming from their vaping, he continued.

“The ultimate goal is to get these kids help, some sort of substance abuse program,” Wright said. “I really want a non-punitive way to help them quit the habit – they didn’t realize what they were getting into.”

Wright and Savoy acknowledged that there is still work to do but believe they have a good framework on which to build.

Wright said he is also grateful for the law which went into effect in Texas on Sept.  1 restricting sale of e-cigarettes to people 21 years old and older. “Last year we had a lot of 18-year-old seniors that could buy it and sell it to classmates who were younger. Now we shouldn’t have anyone on campus over 21, so that should make it harder to get into their hands.”

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