Jun 22 2023

Schools Put Environmental Sensors at the Forefront of Vaping Addiction Response

From detection to intervention, K-12 schools are battling the consequences of the vaping epidemic with electronic help.

While K–12 school leaders have long worked to intercept cigarettes, cannabis and other potentially addictive substances in schools, recently they have been using vaping detection technology to engage the latest growing challenge.

E-cigarettes, or vaping pens, are the most popular tobacco product among middle and high school students, and students are using them to inhale aerosols that may include nicotine, THC and even narcotic substances such as fentanyl.

“Vaping has become an epidemic and has had a tremendous impact on young people and their education,” says Abby Beausir, program director for the Northern Kentucky Institute for Strategic Prevention. “Every school I have encountered has a vaping problem, and it seems to be starting younger and younger.”

The institute works with communities and schools to address substance misuse. Beausir says the flavored, disposable electronic cigarettes are particularly attractive and addictive for students.

Some 14.5 percent of high schoolers and 3.3 percent of middle schoolers use e-cigarettes, according to the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

“Teachers and administrators are at a loss about what to do, as students are so addicted that they cannot stop,” Beausir says.

In addition to risking lifelong addiction, some students have been hospitalized after vaping, and others report increased feelings of anxiety and depression, according to a recent American Heart Association survey.

“Educators are noticing negative impacts to their students’ attention span and motivation, and even violent behavior,” Beausir says, adding that vape-related classroom disruptions can require engaging a wide array of school personnel — from teachers to administrators and security staff — to address the fallout.  

    Physical Safety Sidebar


    Using Vaping Detectors to Keep School Bathrooms Safe and Clean

    Avoyelles Parish School Board, which serves more than 5,000 students across 10 schools in central Louisiana, is one of many districts across the country battling rampant vaping behavior and addiction among students.

    Determined to combat this trend, Rebecca Spencer, the district’s technology coordinator, is piloting Verkada environmental sensors at one of the district’s four high schools.

    Because a lot of on-campus vaping takes place in school bathrooms, beyond the sight of personnel, sensors have become critical. So much so, that the district plans to install them in all 10 schools through a healthy behaviors grant from the Rapides Foundation.

    When a sensor, or vaping detector, detects even the tiniest chemical signature of a vaping aerosol, it surreptitiously fires off an alert to administrators.

    “Staff members love the detectors and, of course, the students do not,” Spencer says. “It has helped thus far, and there are several student groups that agree the sensors help keep the restrooms safe and clean.”

      Jamal Colson
      Students are happy that they are not put in the difficult position of alerting staff that fellow students or friends are vaping. For them, the devices and detection system take this burden off their shoulders.

      Jamal Colson Principal, Bellport Middle School

      Vaping Detectors Work to Shift the Reporting Burdens

      Jamal Colson, principal of Bellport Middle School in New York’s South Country Central School District on Long Island, began addressing the vaping problem during the 2017-2018 school year. With close to 850 students in his building, Colson knew his staff couldn’t physically monitor every vape user.

      “Students as young as the sixth grade were vaping,” he says. “We needed a way to rapidly respond to vaping reports, and we wanted an easy-to-deploy technology that staff could use without sending too many false alerts.”

      So in 2019, the district purchased and installed Soter Technologies’ FlySense Vape Detectors, which the IT team had up and running in just half a day, Colson says.

      When vaping is detected, the devices send alerts via text message and email to Bellport’s security personnel, directing them to where the vaping is taking place. This allows other school staff to focus on their primary jobs.

      RELATED: Five tips for getting the most out of vaping detectors in schools.

      “In just minutes, we can identify the students involved. We don’t need additional staff to manage this technology. It saves us time,” Colson says.

      With the FlySense devices in place, teachers are no longer losing instructional time due to monitoring and referring students for vaping. “Having these vaping detectors allows our teachers to focus on instruction, with fewer distracted students,” he says.

      Since installing the sensors, Colson estimates that vaping on campus has been reduced up to 70 percent, and he has discovered another positive result: “Students are happy that they are not put in the difficult position of alerting staff that fellow students or friends are vaping. For them, the devices and detection system take this burden off their shoulders, and vaping is addressed by staff and administrators, as it should be.”

      The only downside, Colson says, is coverage. There are still areas away from the sensors where students can sneak away and vape. He recommends carefully considering the hot spots where vaping is most likely to occur when determining where to install sensors.

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        How Surveillance Cameras Bolster Vaping Detection

        Just as with other technological and security purchases, evaluating potential sensors for how well they might meet your district’s needs isn’t quick. But it’s worth the time spent to ensure a long-term return on your investment.

        When a middle school principal reached out to him about a vaping problem, Jeffrey Boulais, IT director at Salmon River Central School District in Fort Covington, N.Y., researched multiple sensors. After carefully weighing the pros and cons of each, he selected Verkada.

        “The principal wanted to know if we could get sensors and maybe additional cameras,” he recalls. “She ideally wanted something where she could get an alert and then watch who came out of the bathroom afterward. That’s exactly what Verkada is designed to do,” Boulais says.

        READ MORE: Six creative ways to spend K–12 ESSER funds before they expire.

        The district was using another brand of security camera, and Boulais was hesitant to add a different camera to the mix. However, Verkada “was very user-friendly and easy to configure,” he says.

        Next, he needed to determine the best locations for the system. He started with a middle school and high school bathroom. Pleased with the results from the initial deployment, Boulais ordered sensors for all the middle and high school bathrooms — but he’s prepared to move the sensors if necessary.

        “Kids are very creative, and when one barricade is put in place, they find another way,” he says. “So, we may see the problem move out of the bathrooms and into other locations.”

          2.55 million

          The number of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes

          Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Youth Tobacco Survey, October 2022

          Vape Detector Effectiveness Requires Wraparound Services 

          Like any other complicated issue that impacts students and their education, no single piece of technology will provide a quick fix to a larger problem.

          Spencer, in Avoyelles Parish, says while the sensors are helpful, they are part of the district’s larger strategy of counseling students about the harmful effects of vaping.

          The Northern Kentucky Institute for Strategic Prevention has found that "a three-tiered approach to eliminating vaping — including prevention, intervention and cessation programs — is more effective,” says Beausir.

          And in Colson’s district, it takes a village to address the issue.

          “We recognize that students are often addicted to nicotine, and quitting is a challenge,” he says. “So, we offer counseling for students, with parental involvement. We also provide social-emotional learning opportunities, and in our health classes, teachers talk about the harmful impact vaping has on the lungs and development.”

          As with any technology, school leaders say the end goal of vaping detectors isn’t to “catch” students but to teach them and help them break a harmful habit.

          Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

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