How Schools Are Responding To E-Cigarettes

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Screen shot 2014-06-05 at 7.05.24 PMThe FDA proposed new rules last month to regulate e-cigarettes including banning their sale to minors. As e-cigarettes grow in popularity, cities around the country including San Franciscoare restricting smoking e-cigarettes in a range of locations – from indoor workplaces and bars, to parks and beaches. But how are schools dealing with the trend? Between 2011 and 2012 e-cigarettes doubled in popularity among middle and high schools students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Kids say one thing making it hard for schools to crack down on e-cigarettes —  is that they’re easy to hide. Twelve-year-olds Jennifer Shape explains, “Sometimes I hear that some of my friends do it their classroom when the teacher is not looking.”

“So they literally hide it up their sleeve and when the teacher looks they like fan it away,” said her friend, Kaylen Bondoc.

These devices, which kids call vape pens or hookah pens – actually look just like pens.

They are slim metal tubes. As a result, schools are having to train teachers.

I watched seventh grade health teacher Jackie Ryan give a presentation to other teachers at a school in Richmond, Calif. “Typically they can look like a marker, so it can actually be pretty hard to identify because it looks like a kid is holding a permanent marker or something like that,” said Ryan.

“If you see a student with a vape pen… general protocol is that they’ll probably be searched, probably talk to one of the officers, parents will be called, and then they receive a one day suspension — for the first time offenders,” she added.

At this school, suspension is standard. But depending on the district, the punishment varies. Youth Radio surveyed four other districts in California: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. We found no standard policies. Some schools suspend. Other schools give citations and send kids to youth court. Others require a tobacco and drug awareness class.

I spoke with Genean Jeffery, who runs a tobacco and drug awareness class at 17 different schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. “I had a group today, that had maybe 12 students and I said maybe about 11 of them were there for the hookah pen,” she said.

Her class used to be mostly students who were caught with drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. Not anymore. Now, it’s kids using e-cigarettes.

“So it’s really gotten out of hand. Last year, I maybe had one or two and this year there is groups filled… especially in junior high. They are bringing their bulk supply for their friends. Their friends are getting caught, they’re getting caught and they’re all coming to me,” she said.

While some schools and districts are trying to move fast to update their policies and crack down on this trend, others are more cautious.Troy Flint, is the director of communications for Oakland Unified School District.

“As part of our overall process to reduce suspensions, not just for tobacco offenses, but all suspension, we’re looking a lot more closely at every suspension recommendation,” he said.

Flint says his district probably won’t restrict e-cigarettes until next year. Even proposed FDA rules on e-cigarettes and minors…will take months to kick in — if they get approved. But many schools are starting the conversation.

“They posted a newsletter on the website about it,” said 14-year-old Claudia Lamarre. The newsletter got Lamarre talking to her mom.

“It said that kids are being caught with stuff like that and that your children should be aware to not do it and stuff. And my mom talked to me about it. She said just to be careful and don’t start it or get addicted to it,” she said.

Preventing addiction to nicotine at young ages has become a big push among public health officials concerned about the growth of e-cigarettes.

But with limited data on the health risks, schools are trying to educate themselves along with students…as they hope to clamp down on e-cigarettes… without overreacting.

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