The rapidly growing use of e-cigarettes by teens is creating a movement among area school districts to offer counseling and treatment options in addition to the standard disciplinary actions associated with cigarette use in the schools.

“We feel we are trying to educate kids rather than just give the consequences,” Lake Central Schools Human Resources and Personnel Director Terry Mucha said. “It’s an addiction. The marketing companies are really marketing it to our kids, and they are catching our kids. We want to educate them not to do it for now and for their future.”

Instead of smoke, e-cigarettes produce a vapor by heating a liquid that usually contains high levels of nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals. When the user exhales, the vapor can be inhaled by bystanders the same as tobacco smoke.

Lake Central is developing a program for the middle and high school students that shows how vaping affects the brain’s development and to understand the marketing techniques being used to entice young people, Mucha said.

A recent Associated Press article in The Times quoted Linda Richter, an expert on vaping and adolescent substance use at the New York-based Center on Addiction, who said merely disciplining students isn’t enough.

“To expect a 13-, 14- or 15-year-old to break an addiction by yelling at them or suspending them, it’s just not going to happen,” Richter said, and Mucha agrees.

“If we are going to think of ourselves as educators, we need to educate. Our athletes will still have to miss a game until they attend the program (if they are caught vaping),” she said. “We want to try this program to see if it will help them. We might have to expand it in the future. We hope to provide parents with a website to give them places to go for help.”

Students don’t think they are getting nicotine by vaping, but some materials are so concentrated two puffs can contain as much nicotine as smoking an entire pack of regular cigarettes. Lake Central Superintendent Larry Veracco said the number of tobacco smokers has dropped, so cigarette companies are using vaping as a way to capture a new audience.

Awareness rises

Veracco said the problem came to the schools’ attention last fall when a couple of students confessed to vaping and admitted they didn’t think they could quit.

“They didn’t know how concentrated the nicotine is, which increases the pace of the addiction,” Veracco said. “We can’t expect them to go cold turkey, so we have to help them through the process. We wanted to minimize the punishment and emphasize the education.”

Veracco credited two parents for encouraging him to dig deeper into the problem. As a result, the district assigned four teachers to develop a program of information and places to go for help. Mucha said the program will be unique to Lake Central and will be held on Wednesdays as needed. Any student caught using or possessing vaping materials will have to attend the class in lieu of the usual suspension for tobacco use.

“We expect to have it ready for the next school year,” Mucha said. “We are already looking at what we might have to do for those who need to repeat the program. They have to understand that, if they repeat, there are consequences, including suspension. This is a trial year to see if it helps our kids, but we think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Lake Central Schools adopted a disciplinary code earlier this year for students involved in athletics or other competitive extracurricular activities if they are caught using tobacco, alcohol or drugs. The new vaping program will be in effect for all students.

Veracco said, “We’re going to have an opportunity for students to get this education piece before suspension and tell them what we know. We would also ask the legislators to require that all the ingredients be listed on the box. Some say it contains no nicotine then says it might contain nicotine. We need a little more transparency.”

Other approaches

Hammond schools treat vaping the same as drug use in its code of conduct, meaning a suspension. But Theresa Mayerik, assistant superintendent for academic services, said, “We are looking at ways to support kids with social and emotional issues, but we have nothing in place at this point.”

Valparaiso Schools Communications Coordinator Allison Hadley said, “We deal with it on a case-by-case basis. Our focus is on supporting the students and educating them.” She added the student handbook notes vaping materials are banned from school property like tobacco and alcohol.

The Tri-Creek Schools health class curriculum includes information on vaping, and Superintendent Rod Gardin said, when an administrator talks to students about vaping, they discuss the health consequences.

“We have a number of students who bring and use vaping materials in the school,” Gardin said. “We catch what we can. The devices are very small and can be hidden very easily. It is marketed as an alternative to cigarettes, but it can really damage kids’ lungs. It has become more of a problem over the last couple of years. It has exploded.”

Hobart Schools Superintendent Peggy Buffington said, “We treat juuling/vaping as a tobacco offense. However, we have found that most students do not realize the addictive nature of these products and have a hard time stopping use. We enroll students in our week-long program to help educate and assist them. We also have run numerous programs for parents.”

The district will begin partnering with St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart to allow students to participate in the hospital’s smoking cessation program. Buffington said vaping is a significant issue, and the district is aggressively educating students about it on all levels.

Hobart continues to take a tough stand on vaping because it is against the law, as is evident from the letter from Hobart Police Chief Rick Zormier on the district’s website.

Zormier states, “Our (school resource officers) have found evident of these devices in every setting except for the early learning center. In partnership with the school staff, our SROs will continue to vigorously confiscate and charge students through the schools and through the courts with the violations.

“The police department and the SROs would rather not waste our resources and time chasing this problem down, but it has become the necessary evil,” Zormier said.

If taken to court charged with a class C infraction, it can result in a fine of up to $500 along with $114 in court costs, the chief said, urging parents to help keep the problem out of the schools “and out of their children’s lives.”
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