This year, Maryvale school officials started receiving a different kind of alert about a different kind of emergency.
“Vaping detected, upstairs boys’ lav.”
The automated alerts are an indication of just how seriously school districts are taking the rise in popularity of vaping, or smoking an e-cigarette device. Some, like Maryvale, have spent thousands of dollars on detection systems. Others have modified programs about the dangers of drugs and alcohol or added cameras to see who is going into lavatories. In at least one local district, students are not permitted to use a lavatory unless they are accompanied by a teacher or another adult.
“We view vaping as a health epidemic, and we want to do our best to educate these kids, and also reduce vaping significantly while they’re in school,” said Maryvale Superintendent Joseph R. D’Angelo. “We thought the detectors would be another way to curb the behavior on school grounds.”
The presence of a device to detect vaping and hallway cameras to monitor the exits of bathrooms might come as a shock to people who easily recall sneaking away to a bathroom to smoke a clandestine cigarette far from the gaze of teachers and administrators. But smoking’s declining popularity, and the ease with which it could be discovered because of the smell it leaves behind in the room and on the smoker, had largely eliminated that as a problem in schools.
Vaping has brought the problem back in a new form. It creates a smell, but it does not leave behind quite the same noisome evidence as a cigarette. Lisa Krueger, assistant superintendent for curriculum & pupil services at Orchard Park Central School District, said the initial perception of vaping was that it was a more healthy alternative to smoking, but increasing evidence is leading researchers to conclude that is not the case.
“Youth are not only getting addicted, but youth are dying as a result of this,” she said.
That has not had much of an effect on its popularity.
A survey of 42,500 students from nearly 400 public and private schools across the country shows significant increases in vaping by all grades. The survey, conducted by the University of Michigan targeted students from eighth, 10th and 12th grades.
Results from the 2019 survey indicated vaping in the prior month increased from 21.7% to 25% among 10th graders and from 26.7% to 30.9% among high-school seniors. That means one in four 10th-graders and one in three 12th-graders vape.
The spike in youth vaping — combined with more than 2,500 vaping-related illnesses and nearly 60 deaths, including two this month in New York State — has prompted warnings by the American Medical Association, U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Health Department.
That’s why schools are working on prevention and deterrence.
In Maryvale, the short texts that administrators and teachers receive are triggered by detectors in restrooms, locker rooms and hallways. They were installed in 22 locations known to be popular with students throughout the high school on Maryvale Drive in Cheektowaga. They convey the location as well as the type of infraction, D’Angelo said.
The Maryvale School Board approved the proposal to fund installation of vaping detectors at a cost of $12,000 in August 2019, said D’Angelo. The detectors were installed in October.
“Kids had been meeting up to go in the bathroom and vape,” said D’Angelo. “Now the students know they are there. Disciplinary referrals for vaping have reduced significantly this school year from last year.”
No warning is given to the student when a vaping incident is confirmed. Instead the student’s parents are automatically notified, D’Angelo said. More incidents could result in suspension.
The Salamanca City Central School District is believed to be the first locally to install detectors to curb vaping in the 2019 school year.
Incidents of vaping reduced dramatically after Salamanca installed 10 detectors in its intermediate school and high school, said Superintendent Robert J. Breidenstein.
“This school year we’ve had one, maybe two, superintendent’s hearings for vaping compared to eight last year. In addition to the detectors, there are cameras outside the restroom that are triggered by movement,” said Breidenstein.
“We can see who went in the bathroom 20 or seconds before the vape alert and who comes out immediately after. It’s a saturation mindset. We cannot rely on one thing,” he said.
Other schools are taking other approaches.
Orchard Park has added a component on vaping to its fifth-grade DARE curriculum and to health classes, she said. And the high school has seen a decrease in the number of discipline referrals for vaping this year, she said.
Lake Shore Central Schools this month began to use hall monitors to escort students to restrooms to control vaping and vandalism.
“When you think about signing out, and then having someone [waiting] as you go to the restroom, I think it deters kids from having those meetups,” said Superintendent Charles Galluzzo.
Galluzzo said vaping concerns were compounded by vandalism issues, which made it an even more pressing issue at Lake Shore.
“In terms of vaping, I think every school is dealing with it in one way or another,” he said.