Some McLennan County school districts either have installed or will install devices that will detect when students are vaping in certain spaces to help reduce the escalating number of students using electronic cigarettes on campus.

The Robinson Independent School District recently installed the devices, called Halo Smart Sensors, in restrooms to detect vaping and smoking, Deputy Superintendent Tim VanCleave said. If the sensors go off, a notification is sent to administrators’ cellphones.

“That’s how we know it’s on the rise,” he said.

Robinson ISD definitely is not alone. Lorena ISD is in the process of installing similar sensors in restrooms and locker rooms, while Midway ISD is researching the same devices for some campuses. The school districts are concentrating on middle and high school students because research shows children that age are using e-cigarettes at a record high.

More than 27% high school students reported recently using e-cigarettes, according to a study published Nov. 5 by the Journal of the American Medical Association. That is a record high, up from 10% of students in 2016.

About 11% of middle school students reported vaping nicotine, as well, the study found. The study focused only on e-cigarettes and not THC vaping devices. THC is the compound that gives marijuana its high.

The uptick in students vaping at school coincides with an outbreak of lung injuries associated with e-cigarette or vaping device use. As of Nov. 13, about 2,172 cases of vaping-related lung injuries have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has confirmed 42 deaths in 24 states, including Texas, and in Washington, D.C.

More deaths are under investigation, according to the CDC.

The CDC has linked vaping-related illnesses to vitamin E acetate, an additive used to dilute liquid in e-cigarette or vaping products that contain THC. Most of the lung injuries reported have been linked to THC products, but some patients became ill after only using nicotine products.

Midway ISD saw an increase in the number of students caught vaping or with e-cigarettes on campus about two years ago, Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Jeanie Johnson said.

“It certainly is a growing concern,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing clear data that shows that we didn’t have issues with tobacco products that much in the past. We have occasionally where we would catch someone with cigarettes. I believe that the trend that we’re seeing is in line with what we’re seeing nationwide.”

The district filed those incidents as cigarette or tobacco infractions, but now Midway will separate out cases involving e-cigarettes, Johnson said. Cigarette and tobacco incidents skyrocketed from 15 in the 2016-17 school year to 54 in the 2017-18 school year. Johnson said the district attributes that stark rise to e-cigarettes.

Last school year, the district saw 56 cigarette or tobacco infractions, according to a district disciplinary report.

It is a class C misdemeanor to possess or use tobacco products on public school property, according to the Texas Penal Code.

Hewitt Police Officer Jeff Foley, who has served as Midway High School’s school resource officer for the last six years, said officers consistently confiscate e-cigarettes from students. He said officers have collected between 50 and 60 devices from students on campus this school year.

“We already have an epidemic,” Foley said. “The frequency and consistency of how often students are using them is like they can’t go a day without using them.”

Foley, who serves as the second vice-president of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers, said students’ exposure to e-cigarettes, and their ability to obtain the devices, has grown in the past few years.

“I’ve never asked if Midway has a vaping problem or a drug problem,” Foley said. “If you find an organization that ends in ‘Independent School District,’ they have a vaping and drug problem.”

When found, officers or administrators confiscate the devices from students, who could face criminal charges. Foley said the majority of devices collected appear to be used for tobacco products, but some devices have been tampered with to deliver THC.

Waco ISD Police Chief David Williams said the largest school district in McLennan County handles cases involving e-cigarettes the same way. If a student is caught with a vaping device, it is confiscated and sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab to determine if it contains any illicit drug.

But Williams said the recently passed state law legalizing hemp has complicated efforts to prosecute students caught with THC-vaping devices. Currently, the DPS crime lab only can test for the presence of THC, not its concentration, which is how the new law differentiates legal “hemp” from illegal “marijuana.” Hemp is defined as containing less than 0.3% THC.

“There’s no way at the moment to be able to test what the percentage is if they say this is hemp,” he said. “We can’t determine the percentage. It’ll only show that it’s positive for THC.”

Another law passed this year raised the age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 from 18. Williams said that law gives officers the right to give students caught with e-cigarettes on a possible “minor in possession” citation, a class C misdemeanor. The district’s police department must complete a full report and submit it to the city attorney’s office, which determines whether to file charges against the student.

Waco ISD also has seen a sharp uptick in the number of e-cigarette incidents. During the 2017-18 school year, the district only reported three incidents at three different campuses: Waco High School, Indian Spring Middle School and Cesar Chavez Middle School, Chief of Staff Kyle DeBeer said. That number went up to six last school year, with all incidents occurring at University High School.

But the number of incidents so far this school year has surpassed any previous years. As of mid-October, there have been 16 incidents: six at Waco High School and 10 at University High School, DeBeer said.

Williams said he believes in educating students on the adverse effects of vaping and being proactive, rather than just punishing students who get caught with e-cigarettes. All school district administrators said they prefer to educate and rehabilitate students, not to just punish them — a balancing act of consequences and awareness.

“We’re not afraid to talk about it. That’s one of the biggest things is not being afraid to have those hard conversations,” he said. “That could be the conversation that they need because they may have been going to try it that afternoon. Educating kids is the biggest thing. Are we going to prevent it all? No, we won’t, but we sure can lessen it by education.”

He encouraged parents to check out the website, which provides accurate information about tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and the information is available in Spanish.

Waco ISD’s Student Health Services Coordinator, Rhiannon Settles, also encouraged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of vaping. The school district is developing strategies to talk to both students and parents about vaping that are appropriate for each grade level. She said high school and middle school student councils and National Honor Society members have addressed the issue with campaigns of their own.

“We’ve done a great job of educating young people on the dangers of cigarettes, but now we really need to work on e-cigarettes and vaping,” Settles said. “Any time you inhale any substance into your lungs it can be very dangerous, especially for people with preexisting respiratory or cardiac issues.”

Lorena ISD Superintendent Joe Kucera said vaping is probably the biggest issue his district of about 2,000 students is facing right now. The district is working to install the vape sensors in restrooms and locker rooms, but another issue is identifying e-cigarettes because they are made to look innocuous. Some devices resemble a USB drive, while the tobacco flavors available seem to attract teens.

“Unfortunately, it looks like the vaping industry is really targeting our teenagers, and I feel like we have to do something to try to improve the situation,” Kucera said. “We don’t really know how dangerous it really is. We’re just starting to see some of the effects.”

The Food and Drug Administration is considering banning most flavors to reduce the rates of teen vaping, while e-cigarette manufacturer Juul stopped selling some flavors last month, NPR reported.

Mint, however, remained in Juul’s flavor lineup until Nov. 7, two days after the publication of a JAMA study that found mint was the most popular flavor among high school students.

“I’m just trying to give our kids a reason to say no,” Kucera said. “I don’t want them to bring it to school, and I want them to have a reason not to do it. It’s really not about punishing kids as much as it is about educating them and giving them a reason to say no.”

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Tribune-Herald staff writer Kristin Hoppa contributed to this report.

Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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