The city of Dawsonville isn’t the only one cracking down on vaping usage as the school system plans to tighten the disciplinary action for students caught in possession of e-cigarettes and vaping paraphernalia.
After last week’s unanimous city council vote to implement a new ordinance limiting tobacco usage and vaping at city hall, near or on church and school property, school officials opened up about their struggles curbing vaping on campus.
“The problem we were having was our teachers didn’t know what they looked like, bus drivers didn’t know what they looked like,” said Connie Stovall, principal of Dawson County Junior High School.
E-cigarettes and vape pens come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, some of them mimicking USB flash drives, iPods and portable chargers which Stovall says is one challenge for the staff.
The other challenge is that the vapor produced often doesn’t smell like the traditional cigarette. It’s often a fruity smell that can be mistaken for chewing gum, candy, lotion or perfume.
The junior high school reported during the 2017-18 school year that there were eight referrals for students caught in possession of vape materials. As of May 7, there were 39 referrals – a 500 percent increase – for the 2018-19 school year.
“It’s getting in the way of education,” Stovall said.
Students have been caught not only charging their devices inside the classroom but vaping during class as well by exhaling into their hoodies, according to Stovall.
According to the current code of conduct, vaping referrals are dealt under the Tobacco/Electronic/Vapes and paraphernalia section. The items are confiscated and the student is dealt with as either a Level 1 or Level 2 offense according to Superintendent Damon Gibbs.
“Our school administrators are spending significant amounts of time dealing with violations of the code of conduct concerning vaping,” Gibbs said. “They have reviewed the code of conduct and have made a request to the board to make changes to reflect a stronger stand against vaping for the 2019-20 school year.”
After the board of education approved updates to the student handbook and code of conduct at the May 14 meeting, students caught vaping will have harsher punishments. The first offense includes several days of out-of-school suspension and in-school suspension.
Though vaping is already illegal for minors (under 18) and against school policy, the hope is that harsher punishments will help curve the growing trend.
For Stovall, who oversees the eighth and ninth grades classes in the county, her number one focus is student health.
“Is it against the school rules? Absolutely, and there’s a consequence for breaking that school rule, but more important than that, we’re wanting to educate them so that hopefully they can get to adulthood and be healthy adults and have healthy habits,” Stovall said.
According to the Center for Disease Control, a single pod of the top-selling e-cigarette brand, JUUL, contains as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.
The also CDC warns that the long term health effects of e-cigarettes are still unknown as vaping has only been around for about a decade and scientists continue looking at data.
“We didn’t know the impact back then that cigarettes had on our health. We don’t know the impact that this has on our health today,” Stovall said. “I mean, 30 years down the road are we going to be looking back going ‘if only we had known what this was going to do to our bodies’?”
The Surgeon General also warns that, besides nicotine, e-cigarettes can contain harmful ingredients including: ultrafine particles that can be inhaled into the lungs, flavor chemicals like diacetyl that are linked to lung disease, volatile organic compounds and heavy metals like nickel, tin and lead.
“Based on the adverse reactions that we have witnessed with students, I consider vaping to be harmful,” Gibbs said. “There are unknown chemicals in vape juice that have adverse effects on the body. Vaping is not FDA approved and can be highly addictive.”
Stovall said that vaping referrals started declining after Gibbs issued a letter to the community March 20 in response to an incident involving a DCJHS student that was found semi-conscious after vaping an unknown substance. The letter prompted the city council to pass its ordinance.
“I believe that Dawson County needs to become aware of the harm associated with vaping, and it is our duty to educate our community about these risks,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said that he is working with the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office to educate students on the dangers of tobacco, vaping and drug usage.
For local private schools like Lighthouse Christian Academy, the school began implementing ASPIRE, a free program designed for teens that helps educate teens on the dangers of tobacco and vaping.
The program, which is free for schools, is provided by the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas.
In April, local LCA parent Chad Gibson reached out to the school in the hopes of implementing ASPIRE for its teenage students so that they could learn the dangers of tobacco, nicotine and vaping.
After seeing a report about vaping from the Dawson County News, Gibson realized he was on the right track to help shed light on the issue.
“Even though it wasn’t directly related to us, it was positive reinforcement that we were addressing a real issue,” Gibson said.
In total, 49 students ages 13 to 18 participated in the online ASPIRE program during the month of April, with 41 successfully completing the program.
In post-program surveys, Gibson’s data reports that 73 percent of students said that ASPIRE influenced their decision to not use tobacco or nicotine products; 82 percent reported having a better understanding of the effects tobacco and nicotine have on their health; and 78 percent would recommend the program to a friend.
“Cigarette use is actually on the decline but the e-cigarettes, vaping, that’s what’s skyrocketing and stuff so you still have a tobacco issue; it’s just a different form,” Gibson said.
** Editor’s note: This is the second of four articles in a series discussing vaping.