The vaping trend has hit home in rural Montezuma County, and schools have begun installing vaping sensors at Montezuma-Cortez middle and high schools and plan to expand educational programs.
Although much is still being learned, it is known that vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes, can be especially harmful to growing adolescents. Vaping also is difficult to monitor, since the vapor is odorless.
“With school safety, our students are frequently our best resource, and we listen to them,” Jamie Haukeness, Re-1 director of school safety and facilities, told The Journal. “They want a very safe environment, and many want to keep their campuses free of drugs and violence, as we all do. Based in part from their feedback and obvious locations, we placed the sensors where we believed students were most likely to vape.”
E-cigarettes have gained popularity in the past decade. The electronic devices operate by heating a liquid – usually containing nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals – to produce an aerosol inhaled by a user.
An e-cigarette can take different forms, appearing like a regular cigarette, cigar or pipe, a USB flash drive or a pen.
E-cigarettes can appeal to students because they are flavored and wrongly appear safer than traditional smoking devices, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
But e-cigarettes can be deadly. Right now, the CDC, Food and Drug Administration and other state and local health departments and partners are investigating a nationwide outbreak of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury. As of Feb. 18, 2,807 EVALI cases had been reported to the CDC, and 68 deaths have been confirmed in 29 states and Washington, D.C.
And although packaging may not be upfront about it, a CDC study found 99% of e-cigarettes sold in venues across the U.S. contained nicotine, which can harm developing adolescent brains – especially parts controlling attention, learning, mood and impulse control, along with how memory synapses are built.
The devices also can lure teens who otherwise wouldn’t have started smoking.
“Among current e-cigarette users age 45 years and older in 2015, most were either current or former regular cigarette smokers, and 1.3% had never been cigarette smokers,” the CDC says. “In contrast, among current e-cigarette users age 18-24 years, 40.0% had never been regular cigarette smokers.”
Last year, a CDC study found that over 5 million middle and high school students in the U.S. had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, including 10.5% of middle school students and 27.5% of high schoolers.
Local schools are not exempt from national trends. At recent assemblies at Montezuma-Cortez middle and high schools, speaker Greg Brown, a paramedic and business owner of Safety LLC, quizzed students via their phones to gauge their level of vaping addiction.
At one of the middle school assemblies, 41.1% of 129 students said they had tried vaping. At the high school assemblies, 59.4% of 187 voters said they had tried vaping.
Brown also asked students whether they wake up overnight to vape. Out of 204 high school responders, 21.2% said they did.
“You’re addicted,” Brown said. “If you’re waking up in the middle of the night, statistically speaking, you’re addicted.”
As a response, Re-1 has installed vaping sensors at middle and high schools. The district purchased 20 sensors and put them in “key restrooms and areas we suspected vaping to be occurring,” Haukeness said.
The district’s technology and maintenance departments started work on the sensors in early January, with both schools’ systems finished up by Feb. 12, according to Haukeness.
The devices – HALO Smart Sensors – can detect flammables, hazardous chemicals, vapor and smoke, along with changes in temperature and humidity. The devices can also detect changing noise levels and room occupancy through light detection, primed to sense potentially unusual activity or aggressive behavior.
Aggressive behavior is detected as being any sort of screaming or loud noise exceeding the device’s numerical readings.
“The sensors do not currently have the distinct ability to differentiate between screaming and gunshots yet, but will be updated next year to do so,” Haukeness said. “The sensors will also be able to identify specific words such as ‘Stop!’ ‘Help!’ etc., which will trigger the alarm.”
The district is still adjusting numerical levels to detect aggression and vandalism, he said, because schools can be loud places. For example, when the M-CHS boys basketball team beat Monte Vista in February, cheers caused the “aggression” value to hit the top.
When the sensors pick up vaping or aggressive behavior, an alert is sent to administrators.
Currently, it’s difficult to track how many times school staff have identified a vaping student, Haukeness said. But just last week, several students were caught vaping at one school, he said.
Moving forward, the district hopes to expand its outreach to younger students, Haukeness said. Next year, the district plans to transport fourth and fifth grade students to the high school auditorium so they too can watch an anti-vaping presentation and learn about vaping’s risks.
Teresa Brown-Sanchez of the School Based Health Clinic at M-CHS, said they are still awaiting responses from the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, which will have more accurate numbers on vaping trends in the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1. If students screen positive for vape use, they are then offered a referral to the Quit Line and counseling through the clinic’s behavioral health provider, she said.
Haukeness encourages parents to learn about the dangers of vaping and discuss them with their children.
“Our district website also has pertinent information for parents, students, and the public about the hazards of vaping,” he said. “We always encourage parents to talk as much as possible about the many issues young adults face in this current society. The substance abuse, suicide, peer pressure, and negative social media in our current society contributes to the difficulty of growing up.”