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Some Alabama school districts are planning to install vape sensors in restrooms after witnessing a dramatic increase in students vaping when they returned to in-person classes after the pandemic.
(TNS) — Vaping has increased so much among youths since the pandemic began that some local schools are installing vape sensors in restrooms this summer and ratcheting up disciplinary action for offenders.
“We’re seeing it as young as fifth grade,” said Danville Middle School Principal Chad Kelsoe. “One of my largest collections (of vapes) has come from fifth grade this year.”
Deputy Superintendent Lee Willis said youth vaping is not new, but this school year administrators are having to discipline students more frequently for possessing, distributing or inhaling vapes.
“It’s becoming a matter of ‘who’s not vaping’ more so than who is,” Willis said. “They make vapes now with a hoodie string to where you can wear a hoodie and suck on the string, basically, and it’s a vape.”
Willis said innovations like that make it more difficult to catch students in the act. He said sensors will be installed by Christmas in most high schools.
The vaping devices heat a nicotine solution into a vapor that’s inhaled, bypassing many of the toxic chemicals produced by burning tobacco. However, health experts say the nicotine itself can be harmful for young people and have raised concerns about some of the other chemicals in the products.
Danville Middle School will have up to six vaping sensors installed in all six of its restrooms by Christmas, Willis said. Kelsoe said there are 375 students enrolled at the school and he catches three to four students each month for vaping on the school’s campus.
Kelsoe said students he catches vaping for the first time are suspended for three days, and if they are caught more than once, they will be suspended for five days. He said if there are repeat offenses, he will consider legal action.
“We have added this year a component where we file a juvenile petition where students who are caught (vaping) will go to court and have a fine levied against them for vaping,” Kelsoe said.
Even with all these measures, there are still some students who disobey the school’s rules.
Kelsoe said when he was first hired as the school’s principal in January 2018, he did not see many students vaping. He noticed a rise in vaping when students went back to in-school instruction after the first years of the pandemic.
“It has dramatically increased. …. It’s so hard to detect now,” Kelsoe said. “With cigarettes and tobacco products, there’s always a distinct smell. With vapes, they can take a puff under their shirt and blow the vapor out and it usually has a fruity or sweet smell. It’s so much easier for them to get away with it now.”
Kelsoe said the vaping sensors are tied into the school’s security systems, and if they detect vapor, a message will be sent to his office.
“We can use our cameras to see the time the sensor detects the vaping and who was walking into the restroom around the time the sensor went off,” Kelsoe said.
Hartselle Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said that since her district installed HALO Smart Sensors in her secondary schools, she has seen vaping decrease among her students. Sensors were installed at Hartselle High at the end of the 2020-21 school year, and Hartselle Intermediate School and Hartselle Junior High had sensors installed at Christmas.
“It did work. It would catch the vapor and send the principal and assistant principal a text and even our technology coordinator, it would send them a text immediately,” Jones said. “Even if it was a loud noise (a text would be sent) … but most of the time it was all vaping.”
She said staff “would be standing outside the bathroom when (students) would come out with their hands open to get their Juul or whatever.”
Dwight Satterfield, deputy superintendent at Decatur City Schools, said he is looking into installing the HALO Smart Sensors in DCS facilities, but has not made a final decision about purchasing them. The sensors monitor air quality and decibel levels in addition to smoking and vaping.
Willis said there are always concerns about drug use among students in the district, but vaping has been their “number one health concern coming out of the pandemic.”
“If a kid is vaping in the classroom, undetected, everyone in that classroom is receiving those same particulates,” Willis said. “We used to call it secondhand smoke, but now it’s secondhand vaping.”
Popular e-cigarettes such as those marketed by Juul include nicotine, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can harm the parts of the developing adolescent brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.
Vape products also contain other ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs. These can include diacetyl, which is a chemical linked to lung disease, volatile organic compounds, cancer-causing chemicals, and heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead, according to the CDC.
The Food and Drug Administration on June 23 ordered Juul to stop selling its vaping device and its tobacco- and menthol-flavored cartridges and to remove those already on the market. A federal court ruled in favor of Juul and temporarily blocked the FDA’s order on June 24.
“Just looking at the research and the damage it does to lungs, we still don’t know because it’s so new,” Jones said. “It’s still early, and they don’t know all the side effects from using a Juul or a vape.”
Willis said Danville Middle used its own discretionary funds to purchase the sensors, which he says are $1,200 apiece with installation, and he expects other schools in the district to purchase vape sensors in the coming months.