KSN Investigates: School vape detectors

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FORT SCOTT, Kan. (KSNW) – Some Kansas schools are going high tech in the fight against the vaping epidemic. To catch students in the act, the schools are installing detection devices in the most private areas of the schools.

Schools have a reason for their concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating an outbreak of lung injuries associated with the use of e-cigarettes or vaping. As of Dec. 10, 2019, the CDC says 2,409 people in the U.S. have been hospitalized and 52 people have died.

Some considered vaping the alternative to smoking cigarettes. Now it’s considered an epidemic among teenagers. Many health and education experts are sounding the alarm.

“We have a crisis of vaping,” said Kevin McWhorter, Goddard School Board president.

Students use common excuses to find time for vaping.

“What we are seeing is more frequent bathroom breaks, more frequent requests to go to cars because maybe they forgot something in the car,” said Ronny Lieurance, Goddard Public Schools Chief of Police.

Goddard Public Schools and some other school districts are suing the makers of e-cigarettes.

But other schools are turning to something else.

“We are simply trying to educate kids on the dangers and tackle it the best way we know how,” said Amber Toth, Fort Scott High School principal.

Vape detector

The principal tells us the majority of students who are caught vaping are in areas where the security cameras can’t go, like bathrooms and locker rooms. And that’s where vape detectors come into play.

Fort Scott High School placed 14 of them in bathrooms and locker rooms across campus. We wanted to see how they catch something odorless, so a KSN photographer volunteered to use an e-cigarette in the school bathroom.

The detector is designed to detect vapors in the air. But it doesn’t go off like a smoke detector or fire alarm. Instead, it sends a text alert to all the administrators’ phones. It tells them which bathroom detected someone vaping.

“The cameras do record kids as they come out of the bathrooms, and there’s usually about a one minute delay by the time they come out, so it’s very easy for us to figure out who the culprit may be,” said Toth.

She told us, last school year, the school would catch about 20 students a week vaping in the bathrooms. One survey the school conducted found about three-fourths of its student body admitted to trying vaping at least once. Toth said it even reached a point where they expelled one student.

“It’s been going on even since middle school,” said Jenny Heckman, a sophomore at Fort Scott High School.

Heckman feels the vape detectors have prevented some students from vaping at school. But both she and Toth admit there is a long way to go to eliminate vaping completely in school.

“You can buy hoodies that you can literally vape from the string,” said Toth. “There are watches that look like Apple Watches that hold vapes inside of them.”

“Kids will vape in class while teachers have their backs turned and they’ll never know,” said Heckman.

More schools are considering installing vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms, and even installing them on a trial basis.

But the cost of vaping detectors may keep a lot of schools from getting them. Each detector costs about $1,000.

To learn more about vaping-related illnesses, visit CDC.gov.