Dear Parents and Guardians, In my years serving as a school administrator, I’ve sat side-by-side with hundreds of parents and even more students who have come to know the dangers of vaping. Vaping at school is on a stark, unsettling rise.
In truth, I wish I didn’t have to write this today. I wish that vaping had remained what many manufacturers continue to tout – that vaping and e-cigs are a way for mature, tobacco-addicted adults to ween away from the well-known harmful effects of inhaling combustible tobacco. I wish vaping hasn’t taken over our schools and teens’ lives the way it has. But here I am, and here we are.
I have spent countless moments dealing with the vaping crisis in our schools. Therefore, I’m compelled today to share a few thoughts with you. I’m writing to share anecdotes that I’ve gathered during those hundreds of hours with parents and teens. What I share may be controversial for some; I respect your right to your experience and opinion. If I can help one family keep one kid safe – then I am so grateful to have had your time.
Thank you, One More Loving Adult in the Village
All types of kids are vaping at school.
“My kid is a good kid, she would never vape.” “He’s a scholar and gets straight A’s, there’s no way.” “She’s an athlete.” “He has asthma; he know’s he can’t use that stuff.” These are all statements I’ve heard come out of well-meaning, passionate parents and guardians when talking about their child and vaping. In each instance – the parent is right. Their kid is a “good kid” (not my phrase – I believe all kids are good kids). She is an athlete. He is a scholar. He does have asthma. And in many instances, I’m calling to tell them that their child has admitted or been caught using a vape at school. A colleague of mine recently polled top high school student athletes to ask, “Of your 10 closest friends, how many have or are currently vaping?” The average response was 8 out of 10. His demographic is nothing unique – an average town in average America. My experience as a school administrator who processes reports of vaping at school, as well as obvious offenses, is this – All “types” of kids are vaping.
I’m not say that your kid is definitely vaping; please don’t misread my statements. There are millions of families for whom vaping will not be an experience with which they wrestle. But I wish that other parents knew the journey that so many parents are having right now – that even their kid who would NEVER vape…has or is vaping, or (at least) sees people doing it all the time. I hope what I share will empower you to talk frankly with the teens in your life. I hope you’ll be open to demystify vaping, and empower kids to make healthy choices. Even if your kid isn’t vaping, people they know and love may try it some day. We can help them navigate the experience through frank conversation and dialogue.
Yes, kids can get vapes.
The most common question I get asked when a parent learns their child is vaping at school is: Where in the world did they get it from?
The answers are simple and extremely frustrating. The answers are the basis for our hard work daily in schools and in partnerships with parents and law enforcement.
Students are getting vaping devices (pods, electronic nicotine delivery systems or ENDS, juice, etc.) at school or from friends they’ve met at school or in the community. They’re buying vapes off of each other, sharing, lending and passing them from person to person. My experience (and the focus of many of my hours of work) is that, in most instances, students are buying them from one another.
One parent approached me recently to share a message they’d intercepted using the MM Guardian “watchdog” app they installed on their child’s phone. It was a fellow student propositioning their child. The other student was attempting to sell their child a Juul device (the most popular brand I see in my work), five fruit-flavored pods (where the nicotine and flavor are stored), and a charger. The parent intercepted the message and neither their child nor the “seller” had any idea.
If we want to get down to the original sources, students are buying them online or having adults purchase them for them. I encourage all parents to go onto a website where the supplies are available for purchase. Check out the user interface and see what it’s like to be a teenager shopping for vape supplies. You will see the abhorrent reality of how easy it is to purchase vapes. All it takes is checking a box that states you are over a certain age in order to have the supplies shipped to whatever address you choose. You can also learn a ton by visiting these websites and familiarizing yourself with the technology, the parts, and be in the know about lingo you may hear people use.
Many parents have no idea what to look for.
Vaping and e-cigs is new territory for many of us adults. The industry has had a meteoric rise in the last decade and many adults haven’t kept up. Why would we?
Over the years our school has collected several different types of vape devices (Juuls, mods, e-cigs, etc.) from families who definitely don’t want to take their device home after their child has been caught. In recent years, this practice has changed. Law enforcement has gotten more involved and now issues citations to students for being in possession of vapes, the police now take those into evidence. But before that, our school slowly built a tiny collection of vape devices – we call them “teaching materials”. This has proved very helpful for our families. We keep these “teaching materials” in a locked cabinet in the principal’s office and offer to show any family member exactly what to look for. We believe that this demystifies the vape culture and empowers parents to know what to look for, what to smell for, and what to notice.
I advise all parents to be talking to their kids about the smells that they notice. Although there’s a movement right now to do away with flavored e-cigarette juice, the smell of passion fruit, vanilla, berries, anything delicious should be something you are talking to your child about. I know that’s tricky… As a woman who loves scented lotion and perfume, this could sound like a really dumb suggestion. But many parents are finding, after their child is caught, that they noticed the smell and didn’t pay any attention to it. I overheard a group of students talking one day about how they “just keep their fan on all the time” and that seems to keep the fragrance at bay. Perhaps they were just talking innocently about their home and climate; my ears heard this and took note. It may be nothing – but that’s what many parents have said to me. “I thought it was nothing.”
Check those chargers.
Another thing parents should be looking for is USB chargers. Do you know what every USB charger belongs to in your house? Most vapes can be charged in a student’s USB charger, like in their car’s cigarette lighter or their laptop. If you notice a charger that you don’t recognize, investigate. It may be nothing – but it’s worth investigating. A student in possession of a vape charger (and all vape chargers) is eligible for a police citation in my state; chargers matter and are worth investigating.
Finally, one parent, when their child was caught at school, was amazed that they had seen Juul pod caps all over their house! They had no idea what they were. The rainbow of colorful caps signify the different flavors, and when the parent finally realized what they didn’t know, they were shocked. These had been all over the house for at least a year. I encourage all parents to spend some time trying to buy vapes online – in the privacy of your home – or ask you school for a “Vape 101” lesson. I can’t imagine a school that would balk at the idea.
Many kids don’t think vaping dangerous.
Something amazing has happened over the past few decades. The message that “tobacco is dangerous” is loud and clear; ask any teenager about tobacco and they will launch into telling you all the reasons it’s harmful and they’d never do it. But take away the combustible tobacco, add flavors (or not) and a heavy dose of nicotine – many kids don’t see the connection at all. Many have no idea about addiction (let alone the harmful effects of nicotine or the long-term effects of this relatively new technology and ingredients). I am always amazed (and saddened) when I interview students and ask them what they know about vaping; specifically, whether or not vaping is dangerous. Surprisingly, 9 out of 10 students state that they had no idea the vape they just used contained nicotine, no clue that nicotine is addictive, and no belief that vaping is dangerous at all.
One student I recently interviewed stated that, even though there’s a lot in the news right now about vaping-related deaths and illnesses, that has nothing to do with Juuls or the electronic nicotine delivery systems (or ENDS). Instead the dangerous vapes are all those that contain THC (the compound found in marijuana), and only the black market tampered-with-THC vapes are dangerous. “Nicotine vapes are harmless.” This is what one 17-year-old student stated emphatically.
Bathrooms stalls are the top location for vaping at school.
Bathroom stalls are – by far – the most common places for students to use vaping devices at school. And why wouldn’t they be? Students are entitled to a right to privacy while in the restroom, and bathrooms are the most private places for students. My practice is to always use student bathrooms, since I am instrumental in student discipline and management. Countless times even I’ve been in bathroom stalls with students nearby and wondered to myself, “Are they vaping right now?!” Most nicotine delivery systems make no noise and, unless I observe a puff of vapor, see a Hyde Bar or Juul drop on the floor, hear incriminating talk or notice an obvious shift in smell, it’s virtually impossible to know with 100% certainty what is happening behind that bathroom stall door.
There is hope for school bathrooms, however. There are several companies right now that are manufacturing vape detection devices and marketing them to schools and other public institutions. The frustrating fact is that these vape detectors cost on average of $1000 each. In the typical comprehensive high school, there are easily 10 or more bathrooms, not to mention locker rooms and classrooms where vaping is also happening. Perhaps 20 years from now, vape detectors may be in every room in every school, and I wouldn’t be surprised. People were shocked at the idea that every person would have a cell phone in their pocket during our lifetime, yet here we are. Sadly, for right now, vape detectors are highly cost prohibitive for most school districts of any significant size.
Students in stalls together
Parents – your kids should not be in stalls with other people. The most common statement I here from kids is, “She has her period and I had to give her…you know…stuff.” Yes, people go to the bathroom together, but they don’t go to the bathroom together. In an instance where multiple students are in stalls together, I can’t help but wonder what’s happening behind that door. Perhaps it’s innocent; it’s just not a good time in our culture to go together into a stall – especially in schools.
I encourage all parents to have conversations with your kids about what they see in the bathrooms and how to avoid being caught up in situations where vaping is happening. I suggest that students turn around and walk away if they see someone vaping in the bathroom. For example, if it’s passing time and they see someone vaping at school, head straight to class, tell the teacher exactly what they saw, and ask to go after the bell rings. I’m sorry if you disagree – I know that we shouldn’t run from bullies and that students who aren’t vaping shouldn’t be held responsible. But I’ve participated in lengthy interviews with countless students (many innocent) trying to ascertain who, out of the five students in the bathroom at that moment, was the offender. It’s a waste of instructional time for our innocent students. And since vaping is affecting all demographics, we have to wonder exactly who was vaping at school in that moment.
During the day I get emails from teachers who say, “My student asked to use the bathroom during class because they tried to go during passing period, but students were vaping in the bathroom.” This is helpful to me because I can then use the closed circuit camera system to try and solve the mystery of who was offending. But it also shows me that many students don’t want anything to do with vaping and are going to extreme lengths – rearranging their days – to avoid those who are vaping.
This also speaks to the power of trusting adults! Relationships matter in schools, as you know, and my heart is warmed daily by the amazing interactions I see among teachers, educators and students. Adults matter and relationships matter!
They’re vaping elsewhere, too.
There are two runner-up locations for where students are vaping at school the most. One is (believe it or not) on the bus. I’ve spent dozens of hours in recent weeks watching video footage of athletic trips, trying to track down a report that a student athlete was vaping. The second most common location of vaping is happening is (sadly) in the classroom. Yes – students are vaping at school, in classes, when the teacher’s back is turned. Students rest their heads on their desks and vape below sight. They dig in their backpacks and take a hit. They hide their hand and vape up their sleeve, then exhale into the neck of their hoodie. I have not invented a single scenario here – these have all happened in my community. My list is not exhaustive. I make no mention here of personal vehicles, the walkers’ trip to and from school or the bus stop. These are also places where students vape. In terms of what I deal with from the first bell of the day to the last bell, bathrooms and classrooms are the most common locations.
My school recently did a “Vaping 101” presentation for all educators in the building. We brought teaching materials showing educators the most common types of vaping devices, including chargers, juice refills, pods and more. We also talked about what to look for or notice in a suspected vaping situation. In recent weeks following our presentation, several teachers have called for assistance after noticing a sudden fruity smell in their classroom or a student who goes to the bathroom exactly – 30 -minutes – into – every – class, every day. Or a folder being passed between students, a shared backpack, or other unusual actions.
Vapes are easy to hide.
They smell delicious – or like nothing at all – and are tiny enough to palm. Vapes are unbelievably easy for kids to hide, and you’d be amazed at the places where they keep them. Measuring a few inches long, most vapes get overlooked as an office supply or USB drive. Here’s a list of locations where students report keeping their vapes: Backpacks (any little pocket), in their socks, brim of a hat, hidden in the Scrunchie on their wrist, pockets, wallets, purses, feminine product pouches, in the pockets of clothes they keep in their backpacks, waist bands, bras, in shoes, in cars, and more. Manufacturers are getting more and more creative daily, too.
Watch this video from The Today Show in October 2019. Shockingly, this video is already several years old and technology continues to advance in this industry.
We’re working endlessly to keep your kid safe. And we need your help!