The Long Beach School District is tackling the widespread issue of electronic cigarette use, or vaping, among teens.
At previous Long Beach school board meetings, parents have voiced their concerns about students vaping in school bathrooms. Because the issue has become so prevalent — not just in Long Beach, but around the country — the district implemented a system earlier this year in which faculty members are assigned to stations outside each middle and high school restroom to monitor students, who are required to sign in and out.
The vaping phenomenon has recently grown in popularity with the rise of e-cigarettes, like Juul, a common brand, according to the Center on Addiction, a national organization that assists people who are addicted to substances.
Vaping has become a controversial topic as more studies explore the dangers and health complications associated with it. The liquid inside vaporizer devices typically contains nicotine — the addictive drug in cigarettes — as well as flavoring and other chemicals and metals. Some contain THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. And while some e-cigarette brands market to adults to help them transition from cigarettes, the devices fall into the hands of children as well.
“Early on, we decided as a team that we would need to take a multi-faceted approach to the vaping issue,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jennifer Gallagher said. “It’s not a simple disciplinary issue — it involves addiction.”
Dr. Stephen Dewey, an adjunct psychiatry professor at New York University Langone Health, visited Long Beach Middle School and spoke with students and parents in February about the dangers of vaping. He explained that the devices contain metal coils that heat up liquids to produce potentially harmful aerosols, which are sometimes mistaken for water vapor. As users inhale the aerosols, nanoparticles of nickel, chromium and cadmium enter the lungs, he said, adding that cadmium is listed on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website as a toxic metal that is a known potential cause of cancer.
Last year, 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students used e-cigarettes around the country, according to the surgeon general.
Long Beach school officials said sensors were installed in the middle and high school bathrooms to detect vaping and notify administrators. The students come from class with passes, and they give their ID numbers to the faculty member stationed at the bathroom, who enters it into a log on a laptop, LBHS Vice Principal Andrew Smith explained.
“Making sure kids have a safe place to go — that’s really our main goal — to make everything safe and healthy for our kids,” Smith said.
He and other administrators, as well as teachers and teacher assistants, are able to track the location of the sensors when they detect vapor and directly address the students using the devices. Smith said the measures aim to be preventive rather than punitive.
“We don’t try and catch kids. We try to avoid the behaviors as opposed to catching and punishing,” he explained. “It’s meant as a deterrent for kids. We want to try to get kids to not want to use them in schools, or at all.”
If a student is found smoking a nicotine vape, they will be suspended for five days, Smith said.
“We have suspended many students this year for vaping,” Gallagher said. “That doesn’t deter all, but it may help deter first-timers or experimenters.”
The sensors were installed earlier this year, and officials said they have seen a drop in vape use overall.
“We are definitely seeing a reduction at both the middle school and high school, and we are hopeful that this will continue,” Gallagher said.
“Throughout the school year, I’ve seen people vaping less overall,” LBHS student Nicole Linares said.
Smith said a big problem is that administrators and parents struggle to identify the different kinds of vape devices as well as the substances inside them.
“Companies are making these so fast,” he said. “Everything is changing, and we’re seeing new devices on a regular basis… It’s difficult for the schools and parents to keep up with.”
The district has implemented other measures in addition to the bathroom sensor system.
“We have ramped up our education and preventative measures and did a ton of parent communication and education,” Gallagher said. “We are working on an anonymous tip line for students, and have also partnered with [Long Beach AWARE] to experiment with alternatives to suspension.”
“Vaping has become an enormous problem, both in Long Beach and across the country,” said Judi Vining, executive director of Long Beach AWARE, a local organization dedicated to preventing substance abuse among teens. “Our school district has met the issue head-on, and, from their reports, there has been some real impact on student behavior — a huge first step.”
Dewey’s visit was part of the district’s effort to get parents involved and educated, Smith said, adding that teachers also discuss the implications of vaping in health classes. The schools also have speakers come in for assembly meetings, such as the Nassau County district attorney.
“While [the school] is invading our privacy to ensure that kids aren’t vaping, the kids who are vaping are making it harder for us to be trusted by administration and teachers,” said LBHS student Jaylyn Umana. “Also, students like me who have asthma or other respiratory illnesses can’t breathe in the bathroom — I almost have to use an inhaler whenever I leave the bathroom.”
“When [the students] get in trouble, they talk to their counselor or social worker,” Smith said, “about why they’re getting suspended and what to do to change behavior.”
Vining said her group has completed a survey among students in grades seven through 12 about substance abuse, including vaping, which was suggested by the company who produces the survey, Pride.
“Once we see the extent of the problem here in Long Beach, we need to address it on multiple levels involving the schools, the community, possible legislation and zoning restrictions, to name a few,” Vining said. “There’s no one magic bullet, but instead a multi-pronged approach which involves multiple institutions within the community working together to protect our kids.”
The New York State Senate and Assembly passed a bill this week that prohibits the sale and distribution of flavored e-liquids in vaping devices.
“Since youth are drawn to the flavors, this could be a big step in curbing youth use,” Vining said.
James Baratta contributed to this story.