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Washington Legislature considers paying for vape detectors in schools, but do they deter vaping?

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 3, 2024, 6:02am

SPOKANE — Nearly every time Lewis and Clark junior Olive Pete uses the restroom for its intended purpose, a peer is in the next stall vaping, blowing clouds of nicotine-laced tutti frutti vapor.

“So many teens having nicotine addictions from such early ages,” Pete said. “I think it’s going to be so very detrimental to their health.”

Restrooms are the most common sites for kids to hit their vapes, becoming a modern day “smoking corner.” To deter the practice, several Spokane-area schools installed vape detectors in restrooms in high schools and middle schools; vapor triggers an alarm and notifies staff, who attempt to catch the vaper and intervene in the addiction.

Other Washington schools may soon also have alarms in their bathrooms, paid for by the state in a bill establishing a grant program for the installation of vape detectors.

They cost just over $100,000 to install in Spokane Public Schools’ middle and high school bathrooms, some of the cost reimbursed by a recent settlement with vape manufacturer Juul.

In a hearing last week for the bill, legislators and members of the public raised questions over whether vape detectors deter use. Spokane Public Schools officials said while the technology doesn’t report data on how frequently the sensors are triggered, and it’s too early to gauge the efficacy of the new devices installed at the beginning of this school year, some metrics indicate they may be stopping kids from vaping in schools.

Incidents where a student is caught vaping or in possession of a vape have gone down in all levels but middle school, according to discipline data.

Last school year at this time, administration logged 291 incidents at high schools. That’s down to 191 this school year.

But middle school increased from 100 incidents this time last year to 107. From this time last year at district elementary schools, incidents occurred 21 times and 16 so far this year.

The year prior, incidents were near the number they were in the 2022-23 school year.

Younger and younger kids are in possession of vapes, said chief of student success Scott Kerwien. He said fifth-graders sometimes bring them to school. Anecdotally, he said these kids often get access when they have an older sibling who vapes and they bring it to school like “show and tell,” he said.

Fewer parents have complained, said chief operations officer Shawn Jordan. Previously, parents said their kids were scared to use the restroom for fear of encountering their peers vaping in stalls, a metric that the vape detectors are deterring use.

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“That is one of the indicators that administrators were positive about it last year,” Jordan said recently. “It’s a work in progress, but overall it’s been positive.”

Though metrics indicate a decrease in bathroom vaping, students said it’s still commonplace.

Vaping isn’t limited to restrooms, Pete said. She has seen kids sneaking hits in classrooms and even heard the familiar inhale and hiss of a vape from a neighbor while taking the practice SATs.

At Mt. Spokane High School in the Mead School District, senior Eric Agius paints a similar picture.

“As far as their effectiveness goes, what I noticed is it doesn’t necessarily prevent it in the way people were hoping to prevent vaping,” Agius said.

Each time he uses the restroom, the sensors will go off when a student hits their vape in a consistent sequence of events. Like clockwork, a cloud of nicotine laced-vapor fills the stall, triggering the sensor; the vaping student leaves, and only then will an administrator or staff arrive to catch the vaper.

Across the border, Idaho schools share similar struggles. Ella Terzulli and Aly Caywood, both students at Lakeland High School in Rathdrum, said their school opted to close off a bathroom to discourage vaping, installing vape detectors in the two facilities that remain open. Terzulli said the sensors were more of a bandage to the problem.

“It’s effective in getting kids to not vape in school, but it doesn’t do anything to help with the fact that they’re still vaping outside of school,” Terzulli said.

“Since they’ve had vape detectors, I’ve never seen anyone vape at school,” Caywood said. “At least it’s preventing that in the school environment.”

While deterring school use may not address the root problem, Caywood said keeping vapes off campus may stop kids from influencing each other to vape or normalize the practice, at least at school.

For school staff, vape detectors are one item in a toolbox to discourage vaping. Staff also focus on building relationships with their students to establish trust and communication on schools’ expectations and the resources available to help fight their addiction.

When a student is caught vaping in Spokane Public Schools, they’re connected with an interventionist in the building. Students take an online course on addiction with information on the dangers of vaping and may be directed to an in-house substance misuse counselor.

“Every student is different. We want kids to come to school and we have to understand what they’re going through,” said Shadle Park principal Chris Dunn. “It starts with understanding that vaping is a health concern. It’s an addiction.”

Shadle Park has one counselor who focuses on drug and alcohol addiction for students, shared with another district school. The counselor sometimes has a waitlist, Dunn said. Intervention specialists are largely funded by property tax collections under the levy up for renewal in the February special election.

When caught hitting their vape in school, the emphasis isn’t discipline, Dunn said, but supporting the student in kicking their addiction.

“It’s an addiction for kids, something we have to treat and work to improve,” Dunn said. “It’s not going to discipline itself away.”

A common misconception among students, Kerwien said, is that vaping is a less harmful alternative to smoking cigarettes. But the concentration of nicotine in vape products and the convenience of use makes it as dangerous, if not more.

Kerwien recalls a pre-vape era in which students rebelled with a designated “smoking corner.”

“Kids, I think, just like kids of any generation, find a way to challenge power and authority,” Kerwien said. “Being able to do that invisibly like with vaping is a universal challenge for school districts.”

The bill has bipartisan sponsorship from Spokane-area lawmakers, endorsed by Republican Spokane Valley Reps. Leonard Christian and Suzanne Schmidt, and Democrat Rep. Marcus Riccelli of Spokane.

Elena Perry’s work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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