Quad-Cities school districts spend thousands on sensors to detect vaping, violence in restrooms

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School restrooms have long been a tempting hiding place for the undercover vices of teens.

Vaping is not a new problem in Quad-Cities schools, but the resources to keep the habit off campus are new. Addressing what some experts deem a growing epidemic, five Quad-City area school districts have invested in devices to detect vape smoke, among other health and safety threats.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports more than 2.5 million middle and high school students across the nation used e-cigarettes (vape) in 2022 — more than a quarter of them vaping daily. The statistic translates to about one in 10 students. 

In the quest to stifle student vaping, HALO Smart Sensors have become a favorite among local school districts. 

In addition to flavored vapors and/or THC smoke, HALO sensors can detect sounds that may indicate a safety threat, such as gunshots, loud crashes and certain keywords that may indicate violence.

North Scott’s HALO sensors, installed in junior high and high school restrooms a year ago, for example, will trigger if someone says “Help” or “Emergency.”Oil Below $80 ‘Not a Problem’ for Oman, Minister Says

United Township High School in East Moline soon will equip about half of its bathrooms with HALO devices. 

“We plan to install 20 detectors; the install and first-year monitoring will be right at $40K,” Superintendent Jay Morrow said. “That’ll be directed by our Student Services. They know where to best position those.”

Prior to the beginning of the school year, Pleasant Valley High School installed HALO sensors in its first-floor restrooms at a cost of $19,080. District leaders hope to expand them to the second floor.

“That will probably take place over the summer — when it’s a convenient time to install them,” Superintendent Brian Strusz said. 

In August, the Davenport district bought 22 HALO sensors to place in high-traffic restrooms at Central, North and West high schools at a cost of $51,358.38.

“All have been installed in a pilot phase, so we can measure how effective they are and how we utilize them as a system,” said Superintendent TJ Schneckloth. “We’re looking to expand our utilization of HALO, but we really have to look at the data and the impact it’ll have to see if the investment is worth it.” 

In addition to tracking data, such as related disciplinary actions, Morrow said he plans to use anecdotal evidence from staff to measure HALO’s effectiveness. 
To many local school leaders, the devices are a multi-purpose investment. 

“Because of all the negative impacts vaping has on students, we’re trying to find a way to encourage students not to do that, so the HALO devices would help there,” said Pleasant Valley’s Strusz.

Before the school board approved the purchase in August, one Davenport parent expressed concern for her child’s privacy, though school leaders say privacy isn’t an issue.

For example, HALO will notify only the schools’ principals and assistant principals if the sensors detect a student vaping or possible violence. If triggered, Pleasant Valley and North Scott devices notify building administration and school resource officers. 

“What we’re trying to do is work with students to educate them and provide any kind of assistance about the dangers, and we will follow with the discipline procedures we have in place,” Schneckloth said.

At United Township, the devices will notify Student Services staff, which includes the dean of students and school security.

“Those are the folks that are out on the regular beat, walking the halls and making sure students are getting where they need to be,” Morrow said. “They’ll be notified, most likely on their mobile device. We know there’s going to be some trial and error with this.” 

But the vaping trend isn’t letting up on its own, he said.

“We know this isn’t going to be the ‘cure-all’ to solve student vaping,” he said. “But we hope this curtails it. First, we hope it dissuades them from vaping at all. But also, if a student chooses to vape, perhaps they’ll think twice if they know the sensors are there.” 

Davenport schools’ disciplinary position states that in all cases of possession or use of drugs, drug paraphernalia or inhalants (or look-alikes) on school grounds, students will be removed from school and subsequently suspended. First-offense suspensions can be reduced if the student enrolls in drug services or a substance-abuse agency at the expense of the student’s family.  

Vaping nicotine or THC on school grounds also is prohibited student conduct at United Township. If a student is caught via HALO sensor, Morrow said, the discipline will depend on the situation. 

“With a regular vape versus if a student has one with THC in it — there’s different levels there,” he said. “There’ll be some standard punishments, whether that’s an in-school suspension for a certain amount of time’; I think it really depends on the circumstance. But there will certainly be a consequence.” 

Bettendorf High School will demo the “Triton” vape sensors and are in the process of receiving the units. Rock Island-Milan school leaders have discussed investing in vape sensor devices, but don’t yet have a purchase or installation timeline.