District says vaping now an 'epidemic' in Brevard schools
1 in 5 students nationwide vape, CDC says
BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Cpl. Kirk Geweniger leads a rambunctious yellow Labrador retriever through the lunchroom at Astronaut High School.
"Find it," he commands, and Sonic, the 3-year-old Lab, gets to work inspecting each student, under the guise of a playful pup looking for some attention. As students buy lunch and chat with their friends, the dog sniffs their pants pockets, purses, backpacks and gym bags.
What Sonic is looking for are vape pens and Juuls, the most popular contraband in high schools around the country these days, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
As Sonic noses his way around the cafeteria, Geweniger watches the kids. Most fawn over the dog, asking permission to pet him. Others keep their eyes locked on Sonic. A few mutter expletives under their breath and make a hasty retreat from the cafeteria.
Geweniger says those are the kids he suspects. And with good reason.
A device meant to help adults quit smoking cigarettes has exploded into a teenage social phenomenon, with 3.05 million high school students in the United States vaping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That translates to 1 in 5 students nationwide.
Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory about the dangers of electronic cigarette use among teenagers.
"I am officially declaring e-cigarette use among youth an epidemic in the United States," he told a news conference. "Now is the time to take action. We need to protect our young people from all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes."
Even before the warning, school systems in Florida were struggling to cope with a problem that this time last year wasn't even on their radar.
Through sniffer dogs like Sonic, anonymous tip lines and educating teachers on what to look out for, the Brevard County school district has caught hundreds of students this school year with vape pens, racking up suspensions and placing some kids in alternative learning centers.
A vape pen with nicotine buys a day of out-of-school suspension.
A vape pen with cannabis oil or THC oil — the ingredient in cannabis that gets you high — is a felony and earns a transfer to an alternative learning center, a facility usually reserved for students with serious disciplinary problems.
"It's an epidemic," assistant superintendent Stephanie Soliven told the school board. "It exploded, literally since the end of last year to the fall of this year."
Discipline on the rise
The number of referrals given this year for tobacco possession at Brevard schools is five times that of last year, from 43 to 224. Suspensions are up from 40 to 206, according to data from the district.
Referrals for drug possession, including electronic cigarettes with cannabis oil, are up from 33 to 66, and suspensions from 33 to 68. Sixty students were expelled and transferred to alternative learning centers, joining students who brought weapons to school, called in bomb threats or assaulted other kids.
Those numbers include regular cigarettes, joints and other drugs, but district officials say vaping is largely responsible for the spike. Regardless of a student's age, tobacco is not allowed on school campuses.
"It’s a huge issue," said school board chair Tina Descovich. "Your everyday, normal, average kids are sticking THC oil in [the vape pens] and bringing them to school and getting expelled."
To help combat the problem, the school district partnered with local police agencies and the Brevard Tobacco Initiative, ramping up discipline and handing out citations to students caught with vape pens. Possessing a vape device, even an empty one, is grounds for a citation. If a student gets one, they have to take a Saturday class, pay $55 and could lose their driver's license.
The citations are sometimes given in lieu of harsher punishment. Schools have issued hundreds so far this year, Geweniger said.
'Such a habit'
Although a craze, many students are reluctant to talk about vaping because they fear reprisals from parents, teachers and law enforcement. When they do, they often describe vaping as a popular, enjoyable obsession.
"Everyone is doing it," said Julia Sivco, student body president at Viera High School who's working to get the word out about the dangers of vaping to her student peers. The "cool factor" is the main thing that attracts them, she suspects.
One Brevard student who spoke to FLORIDA TODAY, asking that his name be withheld because he fears getting in trouble with his high school, explained that until recently he smoked Suorins, a popular vape brand. The brief buzz from the nicotine felt good, he said. Mint and watermelon flavors were his favorites.
"It just became such a habit," the Brevard student said, describing how he'd automatically reach into his pants pocket for his pen even after he'd quit.
He said he decided to stop vaping after learning about the negative health effects of e-cigarettes and the growing consequences of getting caught. But many teens, and even adults, vape because they believe there's no harm, that they're just breathing in water vapor.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have found that while it's true vaping is less harmful than smoking cigarettes, it is unhealthy and can cause high blood pressure and heart disease, and with nicotine is highly addictive.
An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in which journalists tested e-liquid of some popular brands, found that some oils contain toxic chemicals, diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione, that can cause permanent and sometimes fatal lung disease. According to the Surgeon General, nicotine in vape pens can also permanently impair learning and memory in young people and increases the chances they'll become smokers later in life.
The most popular vaping device among kids is a Juul, a brand of e-cigarette that looks like a long USB drive. It even plugs into a computer to charge.
"We are shocked on a constant basis what these things look like," said Rachel Winsten, a resource teacher. "These companies are trying to fool us. They make their products almost identical to the candies these kids grew up on."
Often vape devices resemble tubes of lipstick, highlighters and car keychains. The oil comes in thousands of flavors. Devices have been found in classrooms and scattered in campus parking lots.
"I had never seen it before," said Terri Friedlander, who used to teach at Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High School. "I just assumed it was a USB."
Law enforcement has found vape pens on students in high schools, middle schools and even some of the older grades in elementary schools.
In one of the first moves to fight back, the district began heavily promoting an anonymous tip line, 800-423-TIPS, and phone app, P3 Campus, so students could report other students they see vaping.
Viera student body president Sivco says things have gotten better, but high school bathrooms still smell like vape flavors. Other students say kids are vaping in stairwells and even in class, when the teacher isn't looking. Some post videos of their vaping exploits on Instagram and Snapchat.
Getting through to parents and students
Students erupt into laughter when Astronaut High principal Krista Miller introduces Geweniger and tells them he's here to talk to them about "the dangers of vaping."
"It may be a joke to you, but I can tell you it's not a joke," she tries to tell them over the roar of laughter inside the school's auditorium. "We don't know what's in it, and you don't know what scary stuff it's doing to your body."
The liquid inside vape pens is not fully regulated by the FDA. The flavoring includes nicotine and a mix of other chemicals like propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and other ingredients.
The Brevard school district has been hosting assemblies for parents and enlisted student government officials to get the word out about the harmful side effects of vaping.
"It can literally be in your home, in your drawer, in your son or daughter's pocket standing right next to you, and you won't be able to smell it," Geweniger told parents at an information night.
Some parents feel powerless to stop their kids from vaping because the devices are so easy to get and so easy to conceal. Just like with cigarettes, there are shops that illegally sell to minors, and cannabis oil is easily purchased online.
Stephanie Chenoweth's son was expelled to an ALC last school year for vaping, but he still does it, she said.
"I don’t know who he's getting it from. And I don't give him money, so I don’t know where he's getting the money for it," said Chenoweth. "I feel like I don’t have any control over it. He told me he's a grown man. I would do anything at this point to change this."
Surgeon General Adams has proposed imposing taxes, higher prices and indoor smoking bans to deter young people from vaping. Brevard student government officials are drafting legislative proposals to take to Tallahassee to require lessons about vaping in health class curriculum, stricter bans on certain flavors and designs, and possibly raising the legal age to purchase vape pens to 21.
A Juul Labs spokesperson said the company shares others' goal to keep vape products away from kids, and has suspended the sale of certain products at stores and taken down its Facebook and Instagram accounts.
"We are committed to preventing youth access of Juul products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul," the company said in a statement.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has threatened to cease e-cigarette sales and force makers to go through the formal FDA approval process if companies don't stop their heavy-handed marketing toward kids.
“It will be game over for these products," Gottlieb said.
In the meantime, it remains to be seen if the district's heightened discipline has helped deter students from vaping. Geweniger is confident it has.
"What? You guys don't like my dog?" he asked the assembled students at Astronaut High.
"No," some shouted.
"Raise your hand if you don't like my dog."
A few hands shot up.
"OK, we're coming to all of you in a little bit."
Copyright 2019 Florida Today