Schools Need to Be on Alert

Schools Need to Be on Alert

Vaping has reached out and touched more than 3 million students

For years manufacturers have been finding ways to make products more appealing to kids, either by design or through the senses, such as smell or taste. We now have grape-flavored pediatric cold medicine and vitamins that look like gummy bears. So it makes perfect sense that we also now have odors that smell like cool mint or mango drifting from the student bathrooms.

The 2017 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 11.7 percent of high school students and 3.3 percent of middle school students used e-cigarettes. And in many instances, the restrooms in America’s high schools and middle schools, where by law, video cameras are not allowed, have become a popular place to enjoy the puff of the day as this epidemic continues to grow.

The National Education Association estimates that up to three million students are using vaping products, many using the JUUL brand, which not only smells and tastes good, but also looks like a really cool computer flash drive that can be charged in a USB port. Each JUUL cartridge contains roughly the same amount of highly-addictive nicotine as 20 cigarettes.

“It is happening in the hallways, it is happening in the bathrooms, we even had a kid a couple of years ago vaping in the classroom,” said Cam Traut, a school nurse at Libertyville High School in the Chicago suburbs and a National Association of School Nurses board member. “I get the sense that students think it is safe. The marketing or advertising was, ‘oh, this is a much healthier version of traditional, tobacco cigarettes,’ so the kids have focused on that ‘healthier’ component. And it’s taken off like wildfire.”

“As a school, we’re trying to provide some education to the kids so they understand the health risks they’re taking, and we’re also educating our staff on what to look for… but it’s an uphill battle,” Traut said.

Those flavors are attractive to kids, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics. Meanwhile, 15- to-17-year-olds are more than 16 times more likely to be JUUL users than 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization that was established 20 years ago as part of a settlement between tobacco companies and states. The chart below tells more of the story.

The device’s maker says it is intended only for adults trying to quit smoking, that its website aims to block underage customers, and the company supports legislation to raise the minimum age for vaping products to 21 nationwide. But as JUUL and the FDA play the “hesaid, she-said” game, young people are getting sick and, in some instances, dying.

Ways to track vaping in school restrooms has increased dramatically over the years as more companies are creating sophisticated vaping detectors, some that even have the capabilities to detect loud noises, which can be an indication of bullying, breaking glass and other possible violent or anti-social behavior.

New York’s Plainedge High School was among the first to install new bathroom vape sensors that can detect e-cigarette. Few students have been caught so far, but officials say that is not a sign of failure.

“The truth of the matter is the kids see it, they know what it is — and it in itself is a deterrent,” said Edward Salina, superintendent of Plainedge Public Schools.

“We’ve seen significant increases across the student body,” said Robert Keuther, principal at Marshfield High School on the south shore of Massachusetts. “This is not something specific to one group of kids. It is across all of my grades, nine to 12. It is all students.”

Taking the Short Route Between Detection and Prevention

But as a school administrator, when it comes to having vaping detectors in bathrooms you have to take the next logical step, which is to have the technology available to not only detect, but do what needs to be done to also prevent (i.e. catch the perpetrators). And to that end, many security companies are now working with schools and vapedetection manufacturers that are making these detection devices available to schools throughout the country.

These vaping sensors can be installed in bathrooms where it will detect vapor from electronic cigarettes in real time, including the detection of THC oil, a chemical found in both e-cigarettes and marijuana. Still, detection is only as useful as the ability to monitor that detection.

But how do you monitor something in an area where cameras are not permitted? Unfortunately, this is where some schools have blurred the line between security and invasion of privacy. Recently an Alabama principal made headlines after he ordered the removal of the doors in several of his school’s bathroom stalls. In that Alabama case, the doors were put back in one week later after parents issued concerns about their children’s privacy. In another effort, a school district in Texas required students to roll up their sleeves when entering school in an attempt to prevent them from hiding e-cigarettes. Neither action was particularly popular with parents, but it shows the extremes schools are going through to stem the rising tide. There are better alternatives.

Advancements in technology have given security companies the ability to integrate these restroom vape detectors so that alerts for any infractions can be sent in real time to the appropriate parties’ phone and emails. It can also be integrated into the school’s security/video systems. In addition, the technology exists to integrate with cameras outside the restrooms, so as to monitor who enters and leaves correspondent to when the infractions occur. This means if Larry and Billy walk out of the bathroom minutes after the vaping detector signals a time-stamped message to the principal’s email, you can be pretty sure that they are doing something that they are not supposed to be doing.

Installers can also adjust and maximize the settings for the room’s environment, thus removing false alarms that other sensors might get from body and disinfectant sprays. Integration can also be set up to pinpoint where the infraction occurs, so alerts are sent to a teacher on the 2nd floor if there is an infraction in the 2nd floor bathroom, etc. The device can also be wired into a PoE-enabled network. This is important because it makes it easier to connect to an existing network, with less work required.

There is no denying that schools are embracing this technology as the ill effects of vaping become more and more prominent in the news. And that is without factoring in that along with the obvious health risks, vaping has also caused additional problems as e-cigarettes are being flushed down toilets, resulting in school having to dole out thousands of dollars in custodial and plumbing fees. But what price tag do we place on the health and safety of our most precious cargo. Once a student walks through the front door, his wellbeing is in the hands of a dedicated staff, dedicated to not only educate, but to protect.

More schools are investing heavily in placing vape detectors in their restroom, with reports of one Ohio school district doling out more than $60,000 to put vape detectors in their bathrooms. Plus, there are additional costs for programming, integration, etc. So it makes sense that schools should seek out trained installers to maximize their return with real-time communications.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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