Sensors help schools address student vaping

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AUBURN — Sensors are cropping up in schools across the state to help curb the use of e-cigarettes, or vapes, in schools, with bathrooms being one of the areas where most students will use them due to the lack of supervision in those areas.

Though sensors at the new Edward Little High School are not yet operating, the sensors at the old high school were used to address student vaping in school, according to Principal Scott Annear.

Being caught with an e-cigarette or vape pen results in suspension, but the sensors’ value lies in being able to identify students with a problem and help get them treatment, he said.

The sensors are placed in the bathrooms and they send a text message to certain staff members when vape aerosol is detected, he said.


A vape sensor in one of the bathrooms at Edward Little High School. Courtesy of Scott Annear

Most of the time students are not caught in the act of vaping. Instead, it can lead to an investigation in which school staff backtrack who was coming and going from bathrooms around the time the sensor went off.

Most of the vape pens students are caught with contain nicotine. On rare occasion, a student is found to have a vape containing THC, the active chemical in marijuana, Annear said.

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Annear said he is unsure how much the sensors and punishments actually deter students from vaping in school, but the most effective strategy is giving students access to a substance misuse counselor, which the school has this year. Counselors typically refer students to resources to get them to stop vaping.

“So, the first half I think definitely having the sensors helps us identify students with vapes,” he said. “The second half, I think the bigger piece is, in terms of changed behavior, which is always what we’re about. I think having a substance misuse counselor on hand will certainly help that process now more than we have in the past.”

Telstar Middle School Principal Lindsay Luetje is also seeing similar value in the sensors that were placed in seventh and eighth grade student bathrooms this year, she said.

“We can’t do something about it if we don’t know and this is a tool that we can use to let us know that something’s not OK with this kid. They’re trying to meet a need in an unhealthy way and so if we discover like, ‘oh, there’s this need,’ then we can intervene with a healthier support system for them,” she said.

Though there have only been about two students caught with vapes in school so far this year, she suspects that it is deterring students from using the devices in schools, she said.

However, the sensors have not been installed long enough for school officials to glean a lot of useful information from them yet.

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The bathrooms used to be a blind spot, where staff could not always monitor student safety. The sensors allow officials to better monitor the bathrooms without invading privacy, she said.

The devices detect certain particles present in e-cigarette vapor and send a message to Luetje’s phone and an email to her computer notifying her of the detection, she said. There have been instances in which she suspected a student was vaping in the bathroom, but the sensor did not go off.

The sensors also detect when someone is yelling or fighting in bathrooms through a decibel reading, though that feature is less reliable because sometimes the sensors pick up noise from students who are being loud, but not fighting or yelling, she said. They do not record sound.

Both Luetje and Annear agree that most of the nicotine students consume in schools is through e-cigarettes and not traditional tobacco cigarettes.

For the last 10 years, e-cigarettes have been the most commonly used tobacco product among middle and high schoolers, according to information in a Nov. 2 news release from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state of Maine surveys middle and high schoolers each year through its Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey and part of that survey asks them about tobacco use. The 2019 survey yielded the highest reported rates of e-cigarette use among middle and high schoolers. Results since then seem to indicate that use among students in those groups has gone down.

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In 2019, 45% of high school students reported that they used an e-cigarette at least once, according to MIYHS results. That rate went down in 2023, with 30% of students reporting using an e-cigarette at least once.

While 29% of students reported being current e-cigarette users in 2019, only 16% of students reported current use in the 2023 survey. Despite the decline, those statistics are still higher than the national average, according to results in the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Middle school respondents of the 2019 to 2023 surveys reported lower rates of e-cigarette use than high schoolers, with 16.3% of middle schoolers saying that they had tried e-cigarettes at least once and 7% reporting current use in 2019; compared to 11.4% and 5.7%, respectively, in 2023.

When Luetje catches a student vaping, she tries to look at the root cause of the issues and how she can support them, which can lead to counselor referrals, she said. Sometimes the issues stem from peer pressure and the desire many middle schoolers face of wanting to choose their own friend groups.

Most of the middle school students she catches with vapes have not yet developed an addiction, the behavior is more “exploratory,” she said.

When students transition from elementary school to middle school, they are no long mostly hanging out with students from their classrooms, she said. Many of them are now seeking out friends they connect with more personally and they are also starting to develop more autonomy, testing boundaries and developing core values.

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And this is all while their brain still is not fully developed, leaving them with little impulse control, she said. Many of the students who talk to her about vaping say they do not know why they did it, that they were handed the device so they just participated in the behavior.

“In that moment, that impulse control is out the window,” she said.

Overall, she has noticed more students vocalizing an opposition to using a vape in the last few years rather than having apathy toward it, she said. As students learn more about the negative health implications, some seem to be less interested in vaping.

Annear has also seen a similar disinterest in vaping among Edward Little High School students, he said.

While student vaping seemed to have become a big problem initially, Annear has since started to see that behavior change. Until the sensors are operational at the new high school, however, it will be hard to tell exactly how frequent vaping is this year. But they should be working soon, he added.

He said the sensors went off less frequently last school year when compared to the first couple of years after they were installed.

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“In the evolution of vaping, it seemed like that was a freight train and it’s kind of leveled off, if not, kind of come backward and … backward meaning reduced,” he said.

He has seen the narrative around the safety of vaping, as more public health awareness has been raised around issues associated with e-cigarettes, he said. There are signs from the nonprofit Healthy Androscoggin in place around the school warning students of the health factors caused by vaping.

One of the primary chemicals found in vapes is nicotine, which is addictive and can cause problems in the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain, according to Dr. David Salko of Topsham Family Medicine. Nicotine is also a known carcinogen, or cancer-causing chemical.

Second-hand exposure to vape aerosols can trigger lung issues and allergic reactions, he said. It is also possible to inhale some nicotine that way. The risk increases in small spaces with little ventilation, such as a car or small room.

When students engage in vaping now, they are not thinking about their future health as they age, so it is important that adults not allow or promote something that could impact their health later in life, Luetje said.

Vaping can also change some students’ habits and how their brains are “wired,” she said.

“If they’re truly addicted, it disrupts their learning,” she said. “It disrupts their focus, they feel agitated, need to leave the classroom and then that impacts their ability to learn.”

Dr. Salko recommends peer support as a resource to address vaping. For more information on how to prevent and quit vaping, visit vapefreemaine.com.