Illustration by Lucinda Drake

According to the Surgeon General of America, Jerome Adams, underage vaping is an epidemic across the country. Many companies who sell vape products have been accused of marketing towards children, and the rate of teens who are addicted to nicotine continues to increase. Juul, an e-cigarette company that has completely cornered the market, was investigated by the FDA at the end of 2018. The use of e-cigarettes and vapes has had a drastic impact on teens across the nation, and high school administrators are scrambling to prevent students from vaping at school. Recently policy surrounding the use of vape products was changed within Portland Public Schools (PPS) as a whole. Now “all vaping or e-cigarette use on school grounds or at school events will be treated as a drug/alcohol violation,” according to an email which was sent from administrators within the district to all parents and students within PPS. While the email claimed that the district’s ultimate goal is “prevention and wellness,” few actions in consideration of student wellness have been taken. As this policy changes, many have begun to wonder what is being done to prevent vaping at school, and what happens to students who have been caught vaping on school grounds. Currently, PPS is more focused on disciplining these students than on actively helping them.

Franklin High School is not exempt from the struggle with underage vaping. According to Vice Principal Emily Mather, there has been “an increase in students using vapes during the school day or being in possession of vapes,” but Mather warns all students that “addiction is a loss of freedom.” As more teens become addicted to nicotine, she “encourage[s] them to value their freedom, health, and independence.” Mather notes that “vaping is so easy to hide,” which allows students to use and carry vapes with them at school without being caught. This can negatively affect the school climate as it is incredibly popular for students to vape in the bathroom or in other areas that are primarily used by only students. With this change of policy, Mather feels that the goal is to focus on supporting students “in making healthy choices” instead of punishing them. However, now that vape products fall under the drug and alcohol policy, protocol has changed. When a student is caught with one of these products, they are required to attend a hearing with their parent or guardian in which anti drug courses are typically recommended.

One of these programs is called Insight, a course that many students who are caught in violation of drug and alcohol policy are required to attend. According to PPS, this course is meant to help students and their parents answer questions such as “what is the nature and extent of [their] drug and alcohol use?” and “what action/intervention is recommended at this time if any?” These courses are primarily run by Mary Krough, the district Drug and Alcohol Specialist. Krough points out that it is difficult for the Insight program to help students who are caught vaping instead of using other drugs or alcohol because “there is very little information on the long term effects of vaping, so we don’t have hard evidence about how it affects your body long term.” Krough hopes to use these courses to encourage students to question what they are being sold and understand that “tobacco companies purposefully market towards teens” in order to obtain lifelong clients. Insight is meant to start a conversation between parents and students surrounding the use of illicit substances and addiction to them; while this goal is productive, it could have a better execution. Administrators should be more focused on having open conversations with the entire student body in order to educate instead of punish.

Dana Riemer is the district Specialist for Student Conduct within PPS and is also working to solve issues surrounding underage vaping in schools. He says that the first step in solving this problem is for students to understand that “vaping is insidious,” and because teen brains aren’t fully developed, they can become more susceptible to addiction. He recognizes that disciplining students can be incredibly challenging but says that “schools are overwhelmed with this problem and have resorted to drastic measures,” such as locking bathrooms. Instead of being overwhelmed and punishing all students for the actions of only a few, schools should be focused on having conversations about how vaping negatively affects a school’s climate.

Teenage nicotine addiction is a real problem and has become more of an epidemic. Within PPS, administrators and teachers are trying to come up with a solution and have only been mildly successful. Classes such as Insight, while intended to be more than discipline, are still punishing students as they are often forced to attend in order to avoid suspension. Students who are caught in violation of the drug and alcohol policy should be treated with respect and empathy; if a student cannot make it through an entire school day without a substance they clearly have a significant problem. Currently policy is changing for the better, but PPS as a district should start having conversations with its students surrounding vaping before disciplinary action is taken.

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