Brown County High School senior Cooper Olmsted poses for a photo next to an anti-vaping bulletin board in the school. Olmsted recently spoke to health classes about the dangers of vaping and how vaping made him sick, causing him lung damage. Olmsted no longer vapes and hopes that sharing his story with his classmates will help others quit vaping before they get sick. Suzannah Couch | The Democrat
Brown County High School senior Cooper Olmsted poses for a photo next to an anti-vaping bulletin board in the school. Olmsted recently spoke to health classes about the dangers of vaping and how vaping made him sick, causing him lung damage. Olmsted no longer vapes and hopes that sharing his story with his classmates will help others quit vaping before they get sick. Suzannah Couch | The Democrat
As soon as Cooper Olmsted woke up, he knew something was wrong.

For a couple of months, Olmsted, 18, had had a cough that wouldn’t go away, even with over-the-counter cough medicine or cough drops. It would get better, but the cough would linger.

There were times the senior had to run out of class at Brown County High School because he was coughing so hard he could not catch his breath.

“You hear there’s this going around and that going around, so you totally put it off to a bug going around. Then, the cough turns into a cough that you’ve never heard before,” said his mother, Melissa.

At night, the coughs were worse. He would wake everyone up.

Finally, Cooper realized that he was truly sick and he was scared.

Just before fall break, Cooper and his mom went to see nurse practitioner Cindy Colglazier.

“He was able to be honest with her. She made him feel comfortable and not guilty. Yes, the chest x-ray showed bronchitis, but that was not the underlying problem. It’s obvious it was much more serious than that,” Melissa said.

Cooper had been vaping tobacco for the past couple years. Vaping had made its way into the high school his freshman year, he said.

“I asked what it was, and then I hit it. I kept on finding people that had them and kept hitting one. Then I got my own. I went on from there.”

Older students would buy vape cartridges and cigarettes for Cooper when he was underage.

“It was better than smoking a cigarette. It’s what the packages said and what everyone else was saying,” he said.

Because vapes — also known as e-cigarettes — are marketed as a way to quit smoking cigarettes, Cooper said he felt safe using one.

He also had been smoking cigarettes since he was 16, something Melissa tried to get him to quit.

“You take it from him. You go through their car. You go through their room. But then he just gets more. I’ve tried to explain to Cooper, your health is your wealth. You have nothing without your health,” Melissa said.

Now, Cooper is smoke-free. However, he has lung damage that will require him to see a pulmonologist. He hasn’t seen that specialist yet, so the extent of the damage is not known.

This month, Cooper was on his second round of antibiotics. He has to use inhalers and do breathing treatments three times a week for two weeks. “The antibiotics really don’t do anything for the vaping (damage), just the bronchitis,” Melissa said.

“When I start reading this stuff and seeing it on the news that kids are dying, I’m like, ‘Cooper, is this really happening? Is this what’s going on?’ … You’re seeing this on TV, kids are dying and you’re like, ‘That’s what’s going on with my boy. I can’t believe he’s this sick.’”

Melissa is proud of her son for stepping up and making a change in his life.

“After seeing Cindy again, he was like, ‘Mom, I wish I would have listened to you sooner.’ That means everything. You don’t want to say, ‘I told you so,’ but dang it, I just hate him having to learn the hard way,” she said.

Cooper is using his health scare to let his classmates know that vaping is dangerous.

“I saw a freshman in the bathroom today hit a vape…. I said, ‘You’re dumb. You see me over here coughing a lung up and you’re just over here thinking it’s cool to do it? You don’t smoke cigarettes. You’re not even old enough. What’s the point?’” Cooper said.

Cooper was approached by health and physical education teacher Julie Owens to talk with her classes about his experience.

“In your mind, you think it’s a good thing keeping you from smoking cigarettes, but all it is is another thing that’s going to get you sick. It’s almost worse than cigarettes, I’d say,” Cooper said.

“Taking a deep breath of fresh air, I could almost puke. It’s rough. I’m still coughing, but I feel better.”

He wants kids to know vaping doesn’t make them cool. “That’s what mostly all of the kids think: ‘This kid has a vape. Oh, if I get one, I’ll be in their friend group,’” he said.

“I’ve told kids, like, ‘Dude, you’re dumb.’”

‘Not getting better’

In a recent government survey, 1 in 4 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in October, according to the Associated Press.

President Donald Trump’s administration is working to raise the age to purchase electronic cigarettes from 18 to 21 to help combat youth vaping. The minimum age is currently 18 under federal law. Raising the age would require congressional action, according to the AP.

At Brown County High School, students have been caught using and charging their vapes in class. Since the vapes give off a vapor, it is not detectable by smoke detectors in the restrooms and locker rooms.

“I don’t even know where to begin with what to do, because we’re going after it. We’re trying, but it’s hard,” Principal Matt Stark said.

A vapor detector could cost as much as $1,000, and the high school would need at least six of them, Stark said.

“This has exploded,” he said.

“Last year was bad and this year is worse. It’s not getting better.”

Vaping is the No. 1 infraction at the high school.

One big problem with vapes is that they are not easily noticeable, Stark said.

“Now, they look like a flash drive. Then the one I saw yesterday was one that looks like a pencil,” he said.

“If someone has something in their mouth, you can generally see it, because there’s a bulge in their lip or whatever. If someone is smoking a cigarette, it has a distinct odor and you’re going to see smoke. The vapes, there are all kinds of things on the internet on how to hide vaping,” he said.

Students have primarily been caught vaping in the locker rooms and bathrooms. They have also been caught vaping on field trips and on the bus — basically anywhere without supervision, Stark said.

Electronic cigarettes are treated like tobacco possession at the high school. Students are ticketed for tobacco possession on school grounds for their first offense and are required to attend a tobacco cessation class. On the second and third offenses, students receive police tickets along with out-of-school suspension.

A ticket is $158. The prosecutor’s office offers a deferral program for first-time offenders. Students are required to show up for a court hearing with a guardian to get enrolled in deferral. They are then required to complete 12 hours of community service with a nonprofit organization within 45 days and must stay ticket-free for six months.

If a student receives another ticket while on the program, then they will be required to pay the previous and new tickets and are kicked out of the program, said Mandy Parman with the prosecutor’s office.

School resource officer Greg Duke estimates he gets a couple of referrals a week for vaping.

“It’s a fad. They police it pretty hard, the school does. If I spot it, I take them to task on it. I’ll write them a ticket. Then they deal with Stark and (Assistant Principal Chuck) Hutchins,” he said.

“For me, I don’t lecture them on it. They got that lecture from the school. … I try to treat them like young adults, even at the junior high school level. There’s no sense in doing anything other than being polite and treat them like their parent.”

“It’s not hitting poverty kids more. It’s not hitting kids who are struggling academically more. It’s across everybody — honor kids, everybody,” Stark said.

Brown County Schools are smoke-free campuses, meaning not even teachers can possess tobacco there.

Stark believes that vape flavors play a role in students picking up the habit.

“It’s not cigarettes. It’s not the nastiness of cigarettes. It’s the different flavors,” he said.

“… ‘It’s just vaping.’ I’ve heard that. ‘Why are you guys so mean? It’s just vaping.’ It’s like, really?” Stark said.

No boundaries

Students at Brown County Junior High and intermediate schools — whose ages range from 10 to 15 — are not immune to this trend.

“In the last couple of years is when it seems to have become a really huge problem,” said Brian Garman, the junior high principal.

Vapes first started being confiscated at the junior high about three years ago.

“First, we didn’t know what they were. I had never seen one. I remember the first time we saw one we were like, ‘What is this?’” Garman said.

“Then, they got really pretty rampant last year. This year (when) we started off the year it was pretty bad.”

But lately, vaping has not been as big of an issue at the junior high. Garman credits the decline to recent news coverage of topics like vape-associated deaths, the Trump administration working to ban flavored vapes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing a warning about the use of e-cigarettes.

Administrators at the junior high and intermediate schools are made aware of students vaping on the bus or in class when other students report it.

“If you’re working on a project or something, you’re sort of in the back corner, you can do it pretty quick. It’s just a cloud of vapor and it goes away pretty quick. There’s a smell, but it’s not unlike someone’s cologne, maybe, or perfume. It would pretty easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for,” Garman said.

“It seemed to know no boundaries. It was really being experimented by a lot of students across all kind of groups.”

Students are now being educated on the dangers of vaping in their health classes and through social-emotional learning curricula Second Step at the junior high.

When junior high students are caught the first time with a vape, they take a tobacco cessation class and serve an in-school suspension. The second time a student is caught could mean an out-of-school suspension, but it’s rare a junior high student is caught a second time, Garman said.

Parents are supportive of punishment at school, he said. “They are always like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want them doing that,’” Garman said.

The junior high rarely deals with students possessing cigarettes or chewing tobacco now, Garman said.

Typically, students are caught possessing a vape and not actually using it in school. Officials will watch security footage from bus rides and will catch students vaping that way, too.

Brown County Schools Nurse Holly Gordon is working on a presentation for intermediate school students on the dangers of vaping. She also runs the cessation classes for the junior high and high school, which are three-hour classes students must take and pass a test over with at least an 80-percent score.

“They don’t realize that vaping is something serious. It’s like, ‘Well, it’s not like a cigarette.’ Well, no, it really kind of is,’” said intermediate school Principal Trent Austin.

Last year, four vapes were confiscated at the intermediate school, and so far none this year. Austin does not think of vaping as being an “epidemic” in his school.

“I wouldn’t call it a huge issue; however, I would say any vapes in the hands of fifth- and sixth-graders is an issue,” Austin said.

Austin said vapes are usually confiscated from sixth-graders and are primarily found after they use them on the school bus. “They want to show it off on the bus. They will show their buddies. As soon as they come to school, a student will come to me and report, ‘Hey, there was a vape on the bus.’ I’ll do a search,” Austin said.

He said students usually take a vape from their parents or older siblings without them knowing. Some older siblings may even buy the vapes for them.

The most important part of addressing vaping is making sure parents are aware their student had a vape and where they got it. Austin said the punishment for intermediate school students can range depending on the situation from detention to in-school suspension.

“When you bring in a vape to school and you’re trying to make a transaction, in that case right there that warrants to me an out-of-school suspension. Otherwise, we try to take care of most of the problems in house,” Austin said.

“That’s not a common problem (making transactions), but it’s an example of a few issues we’ve seen.”

Austin said vaping is not something he expected to deal with as the intermediate school principal. “At the same time, I know that some of our kids don’t always have the best role models, and that has an impact on their ability to make the right decision,” he said.

“What we see a lot of times is when the kids bring them in, it’s not like they’re trying to hide them for their own personal use. They want to show them off and say, ‘Hey, look what I have.’”

But it’s also important to keep the numbers in perspective, he added.

“We had 260 kids here last year and four incidents. We have a bunch of kids making the right decisions.”

Vaping young

“It’s terrifying,” Gordon said about students vaping in schools.

“There’s not a ton of research out, since vaping is such a new phenomenon. There’s beginning to be some, but we have no long-term studies on it because it’s so new, whereas tobacco, we know exactly what’s going to happen to your lungs if you smoke for X-amount of years. We don’t know that with vaping, so it’s potentially super scary.”

Gordon has been the corporation nurse since the 2017-2018 school year. That year, she had eight high school students enrolled in her tobacco cessation course. For the 2018-2019 school year, that number jumped to 21.

So far this year, 18 high school students have been enrolled in the course.

“Kids, a lot of them, are not seeing effects right away, so they’re not thinking long term, ‘This could potentially be really damaging for me,’” Gordon said.

“There’s no classic, ‘Oh, that kid’s a vaper.’ If you’re young, you’re probably most likely vaping.”

This school year, Gordon and Owens started a Drug Free Council at the high school. The council’s biggest focus so far is stopping students from vaping.

“There’s a lot of kids who are kind of fed up with it as well. They’ve admitted, ‘This is a huge problem we’re seeing,’ so that’s what everyone is really passionate about right now,” she said.

During the last week of October, the Drug Free Council put on Red Ribbon Week, a national campaign bringing awareness to alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention. Each day, there were announcements, the council set up a table at lunch with information on how to quit vaping, and students were encouraged to sign banners pledging to be drug-free.

Gordon said school officials want to help kids quit vaping if they wish to do so. “I feel like it kind of let kids know that it’s OK to admit that you are vaping, and there are resources here to help you quit when you’re ready to quit,” she said.

“We don’t want to slap your wrist. … We want to see you be successful, because this could potentially have very harmful side effects to it.”

Gordon said she has heard from the students she works with that most students start vaping because they see their friends doing it.

“I don’t want to say they’re pressured into doing it. I think they’re seeing so many people doing it. You don’t have bad breath from it like cigarettes. It doesn’t turn your teeth yellow, at least so far, and you can’t smell it. It doesn’t have the negative stigma that is associated with classic cigarette smoking,” she said.

“Vaping is a whole new ballgame.”

Parents be aware
Being able to tell if your child is vaping may be difficult because it is easy to hide and doesn’t have an odor like cigarette smoke.

Brown County Schools Nurse Holly Gordon advises parents to look for changes in their child’s behavior. “Are they being more secretive?” she said.

“Just be aware. Know your child well enough to know what’s going on. Just be aware of any changes in their behavior or activity, like hanging out with new people, or they are less interested in things?”

Gordon said if your child seems more irritable than usual, that could also be a sign of nicotine addiction from vaping.

She said students don’t realize they are going to get addicted to nicotine by vaping.

“They are told from marketing, from these e-cigarette companies, that it’s safer than smoking cigarettes. In a way, that may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. They see safer and they think, ‘Oh, this is safe for me to do,'” she said.

Most students end up quitting vaping after they get in trouble at school, cannot participate in after-school activities and their parents find out, Gordon said.

Students also can persuade their peers to quit. Gordon knew one student who wouldn’t date a boy after finding out he vaped. “I feel like there’s peer pressure on one side of it to start vaping, but then on the other end, there’s a strong, ‘I don’t want to be a part of that either.’ I think that can motivate some kids to quit, too,” she said.

Overall, the danger of students vaping at a young age is that their brains are not fully developed until they are 25 years old. “They’re more likely to become addicted to things than an adult would because they are not fully developed,” Gordon said. “… It could have lifetime effects on them and they are just not realizing it yet. … That’s the scary part.”
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