As student vaping reaches ‘epidemic’ proportions, Shawnee Mission considers policy to encourage cessation programs

Photo credit Vaping360. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Teachers and administrators have seen a sharp increase in the number of students using e-cigarettes and vaping devices in recent years. And on Monday the Shawnee Mission Board of Education began consideration of the first of what could be a series of policy changes designed to address the issue.

Shawnee Mission is not at all alone in seeing extensive use of vaping devices among students, particularly those in middle and high school. A nationwide spike in use of the nicotine delivery systems last year has prompted concerns from federal researchers.

At the heart of the problem, say district officials, is the effectiveness of vaping devices in delivering nicotine, resulting in frequent addiction among teens. Shelby Rebeck, the district’s Director of Health Services, said student use of vaping devices had been on health officials’ radars for several years. But last year it reached a new level.

“I would say that the year before that, we were fairly oblivious to the magnitude of the problem,” Rebeck said. “As of last year, I started calling it an epidemic.”

The devices are easy for students to obtain, and because of the amount of nicotine they deliver in a single hit, they frequently lead to quick addiction. Students get hooked and find they can’t stop even when they want to.

“We have had parents and kids coming forward and saying, ‘We want to figure out a way for the student to quit.’ But they literally cannot,” Rebeck said.

She recalled an incident with one Shawnee Mission student who was caught vaping on school property.

“She was begging to be able to vape before her parents got to the school because she knew she was going to have the device taken away,” Rebeck said. “She said she wanted to be able to finish taking her hit because her body was so addicted to it and she knew she wasn’t going to have access to it soon.”

Looking at vaping as a problem of addiction to be treated as opposed to simply a disciplinary issue is at the root of the policy change that the board began considering Monday. The group held a first reading of an update to the district policy on tobacco and nicotine delivery devices that more clearly defines the steps administrators can take when students are caught with devices on school grounds.

The existing policy states that “Administrators may report students who are in violation of this policy to law enforcement, as appropriate.”

Updated language under consideration provides a more comprehensive list of possible consequences — including students being ordered to participate in tobacco education or cessation programs. Rebeck, who sits on a state department of education task force looking at policy relating to the issue, said that the language being considered by Shawnee Mission largely mirrors the kinds of recommendations people can expect to see from the state.

“We want to start looking at this primarily as an addiction problem,” she said. “Which means having cessation programs as part of the options. It means looking at in-school suspensions instead of out-of-school suspensions.”

One member of the board said she was hoping to see further discussion of the types of disciplinary action that would be recommended for students caught using devices on school grounds because the problem was so widespread that oftentimes teachers and administrators don’t know where to start.

“This is a huge problem,” said SM Northwest representative Patty Mach. “The students are doing it in the classroom, et cetera, and it’s so pervasive that there’s not a lot of discipline being brought about for this.”