“(V)aping is a huge problem – more so in high schools, but increasingly in middle schools and we are experiencing an increase in all schools.”
David Cox, Superintendent, Sullivan County Schools
“If we all think back to being a teenager, you don’t think past the end of your nose sometimes and you don’t make the right decisions. So, it’s all about educating these students and telling them the harmful effects.”
Kim Kirk, Principal, Tennessee High School (Bristol)
David Cox isn’t alone in his vexation about vaping in the schools. Sullivan County’s school superintendent and his colleagues around the region continue to try and wrap their arms around a problem that produced about four incidents a day last school year across 12 systems that provided data.
So far this year, seven of those systems are on track to encounter more incidents. Across all 12 systems, if trends hold, nearly 900 students will be caught and disciplined for vaping compared to 709 last school year. And three of the four schools who only reported data for this year — Carter, Washington and Hawkins in Tennessee — have this year’s highest, second-highest and fourth-highest rates.
What the school systems are finding mirrors self-reported increases by high school and middle school students just released in a Journal of the American Medical Association report. The Nov. 5 report revealed that 27.5 percent of surveyed high schoolers and 10.5 percent of middle schoolers had used vaping products within the past 30 days. Those numbers compared to 5.8 percent and 2.3 percent smoking cigarettes.
The trend toward increased local offenses isn’t for lack of trying to address the problem. Most of the 16 systems that provided specific data for this school year indicated they continue to adapt policies, enforcement and prevention efforts to help protect students from what they say is an insidious product – one that often looks like the type of USB stick a student might use to store schoolwork.
“They are so hard to catch, and companies are playing to the students’ desires to hide the devices from us,” Unicoi County High School Chris Bogart said.
Like several systems, Unicoi County separated vaping offenses out from tobacco offenses this school year with what Bogart called “the onset of vaping as such a huge issue.”
“The devices are very easy to hide and using them is easy to conceal,” Science Hill High School administrators said in a statement. Though Johnson City had one of the lowest rates of offenses per 1,000 enrollment last school year and does again this year, administrators know it’s a problem and they know for every student they catch, an unknown number are getting away with it.
Digging into the numbers
Last school year, 709 students were caught vaping in the 12 school systems that had already started separating those numbers from tobacco offenses. Four more systems – Washington, Carter, Unicoi and Hawkins counties in Tennessee – are keeping track now.
The 2018-19 full-year figures show an average of 11.2 offenses per 1,000 students. That includes enrollment figures for elementary schools, and only a few children at that level were caught with vaping products. At the system level, the highest incidence was in the Kingsport schools (18.1 per thousand) and the lowest was in Wise County, Va. (4.2).
Roughly one-third of the way through this school year, the schools with 2018 data had encountered 291 offenses. At that rate, those 12 systems are on track for about a 23 percent increase over last year.
Incidents per 1,000 this school year projected for a full year average 17.46 across 16 systems. They range from highs of 29.1 in Carter and Johnson counties to lows of 8.52 in Elizabethton and 9.3 in Johnson City and Greene County.
Middle schoolers are getting caught vaping at a ratio that’s slightly lower than the JAMA self-reported figures. A total of 255 middle schoolers were caught vaping according to systems that broke down the figures, compared to 932 high schoolers. Whereas middle schoolers represent 22 percent of the total offenses, they represented nearly 28 percent of the self reporting vapers in the JAMA study.
Turning the tide: Education and discipline
Kingsport, which had the highest 2018-19 rate, is fifth-lowest so far this year at 12.24. If that average holds, the system may have a roughly 50 percent decrease this school year over last. Tennessee High School in Bristol is also experiencing a lower rate of vaping this year, principal Kim Kirk said. She attributed the improvement to a couple of things.
Bristol toughened its policy this year, with first offenses netting a one day out-of-school suspension and a court citation. Kirk said teachers are monitoring more closely as well, including outside bathrooms, which she said seem to be favored places for students to indulge. “They (teachers) just walk in and see them puffing on the vape,” Kirk said.
The principal likes to think that education is playing just as much of a role in the decrease, though. Student and parent forums have been part of the effort. “The parents have been faced with something that’s brand new that they don’t know a lot about,” Kirk said.
While Johnson City’s rate is lower than the average, it’s on track to increase by nearly 50 percent this year. “We are worried about what vaping is doing to our kids,” Science Hill High School administrators said. “The highly addictive quality of vaping coupled with the largely unknown long term effects is very concerning to us. We hear from students that they started vaping because they thought it was a safe alternative to smoking and initially at least, they liked the way it made them feel.”
Chris Bogart, Unicoi County’s principal, said most of the students caught vaping there report never having tried cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. “They started with it,” Bogart said. “So they aren’t trying to get off tobacco, and the most prevalent reason they start is absolutely peer pressure.”