JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — With vaping apparently here to stay and the rise of psychoactive edibles, Johnson City’s school system is calling on community health leaders to help navigate those challenges, along with that of mental health, among school-aged children.

Johnson City Schools Coordinator of School Health Jennifer Norton helped lead a meeting with local health officials Monday. The school system targeted the issues as critical when it developed a five-year strategic plan last summer.

Since then, 53 nicotine vape devices and another 28 with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, have been confiscated at Science Hill High School alone. Tuesday, Norton told News Channel 11 that vaping and edibles, such as gummies containing THC, are pervasive in society at large — and that means kids are being exposed to them whether parents and teachers are aware or not.

If I’m a parent that I don’t use these products, I don’t know what’s out there, and I don’t know the dangers,” Norton said.

Johnson City Coordinated School Health Coordinator Jennifer Norton is helping lead strategies to best confront vaping, edibles and mental health challenges for children inside the schools and in the community. (WJHL photo)

“Part of that is really just helping our parents understand, we’re not introducing topics to these kids that they have not been exposed to, it’s ‘how do we prepare them when they are introduced to them?’ That’s what it’s really about so they’re prepared and they’re able to handle that if that comes their way, if it’s offered to them.”

A positive and restorative approach

Norton said the schools hope to take a three-pronged approach as they tackle a problem that’s been on their radar for several years. Prevention will be the highest priority, but being realistic, they know they’ll have to focus on mitigation and response.

“Last summer, we talked about addressing substance abuse from a positive and restorative pathway, so marrying that with the other traditional things that have gone on with the disciplinary actions,” she said.

Whether that will change the consequences for THC vapes, including those containing Delta 8, remains to be seen. Currently, that substance is considered a legend drug and carries a 180-day suspension.

At this point, she said, the school district is “committed to working with outside community partners, people that really have a handle on community, have a handle on the medical side of it, the public health side of it and bringing those two entities together to just start that conversation.”

Those conversations will bring more questions and ideas to the surface, Norton said. Before long the partners will develop an end goal and some “actionable steps” and objectives to meeting those goals.

“How do we do the best to take care of something that we know could hold onto our kids for a long time long after they leave the doors from here,” she said. “That’s as simple as it is.”

Marketing to kids

Norton said she’s convinced the producers of vapes and edibles are marketing to children who aren’t old enough to make informed decisions. That includes edibles in packaging that mimics popular candies and vapes with flavors like birthday cake and cinnamon roll.

“I don’t feel they’re coming after my age demographic,” Norton said. “They’re going after these younger populations, younger kids with that flavoring, cause it masks what they’re actually doing.”

She said the stakes are high, whether it’s exposure to THC or the impact of nicotine addiction and other chemicals in vapes that still lack years of research to determine their long-term effects.

“This is not water vapor,” Norton said. “It is filled with a number of substances that are harmful to the body that I think we’re only beginning to know what the end result will be with some of our population that have started these.

“Our kids are the science experiment right now,” she added. “That’s what they are. They’re the science experiment of where this’ll be, the same way that our population now in their 40s, 50s, 60s have been with traditional cigarettes.

“That’s where we’re starting now with our young people. They’re that experiment for the next generation of what will these products bring and what will happen to them.”

She said the recent advent of vapes and edibles makes parenting a different ballgame because exposure to them won’t necessarily be limited to school. She said that makes parent-to-parent conversations when sending kids to playdates a different animal from asking about nut allergies or whether firearms are stored safely.

“Now we’re going into the conversations of educating our parents, ‘what other substances do you have in your house, you know, do you use these products — without judgment, but do you use them and are they securely put up?’ Again as a parent, I’m being more educated on where my child is and how do I keep them safe.

“If you have a child that takes a gummy bear that’s a multivitamin and they’re a small child and see another gummy bear sitting there, they don’t know the difference and that risk goes up.”