Written by Dan Stepenosky, Superintendent of Schools, Las Virgenes Unified School District.
We have watched the dramatic increase in the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices across the country, the state and locally. After decades of declining tobacco use among minors, we now see a dramatic increase due to the variety of new vaping devices, and the idea that vaping is not harmful, or is less harmful than cigarettes. The National Institute of Health reports that 36 percent of people under the age of 18 have reported using a vaping device in 2018, and that number is expected to grow much more in 2019. The percentage of eighth-grade students who report using a vaping device has increased from 3.5 percent to 6.1 percent and continues to rise. The percentage of 10th-grade students has jumped from 8 percent to 16 percent, and 12th-grade students nationally have reported an even larger increase, from 11 percent in 2017 to 20.9 percent in 2018.
In an effort to address this new epidemic, the Las Virgenes Unified School District has been aggressive in its efforts to educate students, parents and staff, while enforcing rules and regulations on vaping.
Las Virgenes was one of only five school districts in the state to be awarded a state grant of $1,075,000 by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, funded by Proposition 56, the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tax Act that passed on Nov. 8, 2016. Prop. 56 increased the cigarette tax by $2 per pack, with an equivalent increase to other tobacco products as well. The bulk of the revenue generated by the new tax was earmarked for medical purposes. It has generated as much as $1.4 billion in new revenue for the state, a portion of which has been allocated to schools, cities and law enforcement to reduce the use of vape and tobacco products among youth.
In January 2018, Las Virgenes was one of the first school districts in the region to warn parents about the dangers of vaping products. In October 2018, Las Virgenes appointed two new Deans of Student Safety and Wellness, Marty Freel and Mona White. The deans have extensive educational backgrounds and will focus primarily on educating our students, parents and staff regarding the dangers of vaping. These two new full-time positions will be funded through the Prop. 56 Tobacco Grant. This grant award has enabled us to position ourselves as a statewide leader in curbing the growing vaping trend among teens nationwide.
The deans work with local law enforcement to support safety efforts, help with early intervention and discipline of nicotine-related incidents, and promote restorative approaches to discipline in an environment of high accountability and high support. They help us support students and families in understanding the dangers of high-risk behaviors such as vaping and e-cigarettes.
Since being hired in October, they have spoken to sixth- and 12th-grade students in 192 classrooms, conducted six parent trainings, presented to staff and secondary PFA/C organizations, and held Reality Parties for more than 200 parents and community members. The deans have also offered webinars, podcasts, and presented materials on social media in order to reach as wide an audience as possible.
In their presentations, they explain the dangers of vaping and nicotine addiction, and show what the various devices look like and how they are packaged to resemble everyday technology items. The devices themselves, like the Juul, are small and easy to conceal, do not require a match or flame, and do not emit smoke – making them very easy for students to conceal, and difficult for teachers or parents to detect. They even bring in samples of the oils and juices that are used in the devices so that parents and staff are familiar with the deceiving scented flavors.
In their work with the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department, the deans visited all 27 tobacco and vape retail stores in our district to begin a dialog with them. They introduced themselves, handed the store employees fliers, and reminded them of the law regarding selling to minors. Our deans have also assisted the Sheriff’s Department in approximately 35 sting operations where they have used underage minors, typically ages 14 to 15, and a plainclothes officer to enter the retail facility and attempt to buy vaping devices.
During one sting operation, the owner happened to be operating the cash register and informed the 14-year-old minor that he could not sell to her, but suggested that she find an adult in the store to purchase for her. The minor turned to the adult behind her in line, who not only agreed to buy the vaping device, but alcohol as well. Both the store owner and the adult offering illegal assistance were cited.
Our deans are also working with the community to help promote a healthier lifestyle for students. They have created the Breathe Clean 2019 campaign to spread awareness about the dangers of e-cigarettes, vaping and tobacco products. Through the campaign, they are working to empower students to make good choices based on scientific facts and knowledge.
In 2018, we also formed the Community 360 Counseling Center, a student assistance program offering confidential counseling services to support students and their families. The Counseling Center works collaboratively with the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department and local mental health and wellness providers. The Counseling Center, which received more than 60 referrals in the first two weeks, provides wellness resources, crisis support and educational events.
With our Prop. 56 grant funds, we have also installed vape detection devices in the restrooms of our secondary schools. The devices cost approximately $995 each and require power and internet connections as they detect the chemicals emitted by vaping devices and then send a text message to an administrator.
We are finding that students who use vaping devices develop strong addictions to those devices, even those who only use them for a short period of time. Many students believe that vaping is an issue in schools, and that many of their friends are addicted. We have learned through our work that addiction issues associated with nicotine are very, very powerful and extremely important to identify and address early. Rather than focusing on disciplinary actions or citing students, education is the real power for our students and parents — encouraging them to make healthy choices throughout life.