Area schools grapple with vaping rise

Melbourne High School Principal Chad Kirk sat in a meeting with 20 student leaders from his school and asked this question:

“How many of you know someone who has tried vaping, or vapes regularly?”

Every one of them raised a hand.

“This problem has really exploded,” Kirk said. “It’s very alarming.”

Kirk and his fellow school administrators across the Brevard County, and indeed the entire U.S., are grappling with what has quickly become the single-largest discipline issue in Brevard high schools: the use of battery powered e-cigarettes and other vaping devices to inhale highly addictive concentrated liquid nicotine and other substances, including THC.

Brevard Public Schools reported 71 tobacco-related disciplinary actions from August 2017 to November 2017. A year later, there were 317 violations during the same time period. Students cited face a $30 fine and possible suspension. Repeat violators can be expelled.

The district increased efforts to crack down on tobacco at the beginning of the school year and didn’t track how many of those cases were related to vaping versus traditional cigarettes or other tobacco products.

But district leaders and school administrators say the connection is obvious. “It’s an epidemic,” Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Leading and Learning Stephanie Soliven said at a November School Board meeting.

“It’s a really serious thing that we have found most don’t understand.”

Soliven told School Board members that some students are vaping concentrated THC oil or other illegal substances. That has lead School Resource Officers to become more involved in enforcement, and resulted in several expulsions this year. Students can be charged with a felony for such offenses.

Vaping and other issues affecting teenagers, including anxiety and social media, will be the topic of a panel discussion from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight at the school district offices at 2700 Judge Fran Jamieson Way in Viera.

The event is geared toward parents and the public is invited.

Vaping devices work by heating up a liquid – most often containing nicotine – and converting it to a vapor which is inhaled by the user.

Among the most popular of these devices is a nondescript product called Juul, which resembles a USB flash drive, just like the kind many kids use to transfer homework between home and school computers. The brand name is so prevalent in the lexicon of today’s teenagers that it has become a verb, as in, “Some kids were juuling in the bathroom today,” or “My friend went to her car to juul.”

Juuls can be charged in any USB port, such as the ones on a laptop or computer. “They could be on your desk and you wouldn’t even know what it was,” Kirk said. “They’re charging their Juul in plain sight.”

The Federal Drug Administration declared vaping a national epidemic in September and issued several demands to manufacturers of vaping devices. In response, Juul limited sales of some of its most popular flavors, including mango and cucumber. The company also deleted its Instagram and Facebook accounts, and vowed to more closely monitor sales to minors.

Besides the already well-known negative health consequences of nicotine, vaping comes with a laundry list of other alarming concerns.

The biggest, perhaps, is that the liquid is highly concentrated. One Juul “pod” contains an amount of nicotine equivalent to an entire pack of cigarettes, according to the company.

Another is that the effect of chemical byproducts in vaping liquids is largely unknown. The National Centers for Disease Control says those byproducts may cause cancer or other health issues.

School administrators, student leaders and district officials are banding together to discourage vaping.

Student government leaders from every high school have met several times with Superintendent of Schools Mark Mullins to formulate a proposal that they hope to take to the state legislature this spring. The plan isn’t finalized yet, but students might ask state lawmakers to increase the legal age to purchase vaping device from 18 to 21, or to require that manufacturers provide more education on the negatives of vaping.

In addition to the district workshop tonight, several schools have held programs to educate parents on vaping.

At Melbourne High School, for example, students have launched awareness campaigns and other efforts to discourage vaping. Kirk said the issue is especially hard to combat because it is so prevalent across the entire student population county-wide.

“It cuts across all lines,” he said. “There’s no correlation between ethnicity, poverty level, honor student, non-honor student.”

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