RICHFIELD — As medical professionals investigate the health effects of vaping, frustrated education officials hope a new tool will help them stop their students from pursuing the habit.
The Revere Local School District has already installed vape detectors in its high school, middle school and field house, while Stow-Munroe Falls High School plans to install the detectors soon.
Summit County health officials earlier this week urged residents to quit vaping as a local user recently became ill. On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also urged people to consider not using e-cigarette products while an investigation into vaping-associated lung disease continues.
E-cigarettes and vaping products have come under increased scrutiny as officials have identified about 450 possible cases related to vape users, including as many as five deaths in 33 states.
Revere installed 16 vape detectors in time for the start of the school year on Tuesday.
"I don't believe that our district is experiencing any higher rate of usage than our peers,” Superintendent Matt Montgomery said. “We are just trying a multipronged approach to try to address this concern, just like all the other districts."
The detectors pick up on chemicals released while vaping. The sensors also detect decibel level anomalies, which could indicate a problem, like fighting or bullying. No video or audio is recorded.
When the sensor goes off, school administrators are notified of the infraction and the location via text so they can investigate.
The devices cost $995 each, but Revere received a discount for ordering in bulk, bringing their total to around $14,000. The district of 2,800 students used a $15,000 school safety grant it received from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office last year to pay for the detectors.
New York-based Soter Technologies produces the device, called FlySense. According to the company, hundreds of schools in 35 states and 10 countries have installed the FlySense systems, with 35,781 vaping incidents detected since January as of 5 p.m. Friday.
Montgomery declined to say where the detectors are located but said they’re concentrated in the high school of about 850 students because more students are vaping there.
The detectors are movable, so they’ll be relocated to the new high school currently under construction when it opens at the start of the next school year.
Penalties for vaping
Students caught on Revere’s campus distributing, purchasing or using vaping devices may be removed from class and suspended. Student-athletes can face additional consequences, like limited playing time, under the district’s athletic code of conduct.
The first offense is a three-day out-of-school suspension, but if students agree to work with the district’s drug and alcohol behavioral specialist and participate in an educational program, the suspension is reduced to one day. Further infractions incur increased consequences.
Montgomery said helping young people stop vaping requires a community-wide, education-based approach that includes parents, schools and the medical and scientific fields.
“They're only with us for a portion of the day. They're certainly not with us in the evenings or over the summer,” he said. “We rely heavily on those strong bonds that are interwoven within the community to try to handle this because it can't be just a parent issue or a concern nor it can be just a school issue.”
Stow-Munroe Falls High School Principal Jeffrey Hartmann said he’s not sure when the school will receive its order of four vape detectors, which cost a total of about $3,500.
“What ends up happening is we have groups of students for whom bathrooms are an unsupervised, unstructured area, and for some, that is an opportunity to engage in problematic behavior,” he said. “So it will not take long for students to realize that there is a device monitoring the space, and then they’ll change their behavior accordingly.”
Hartmann said in the 2017-2018 school year, there were 21 tobacco violations. Through January of the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent data available, there were already 49 violations.
It’s a trend that’s continuing to increase. Already this school year, which started Aug. 20, students have been suspended and expelled for vaping-related violations.
“It’s a terrible health hazard and a scourge on society,” Hartmann said of vaping, adding students “rarely” have traditional cigarettes or marijuana.
Consequences vary based on the number of violations the student has received and what exactly the incident involves — from possessing multiple devices or devices containing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to selling or distributing devices — but can range from multiple-day suspensions to expulsions to legal charges. Students in extracurricular activities can face additional consequences, like missing games. Additionally, students are required to attend a one-day tobacco-free workshop.
Hartmann said there are students in the high school of 1,800 students who have faced multiple violations, which Hartmann said is “biological because they’re quite literally addicted to the devices.” He said that’s a consequence of the marketing targeted at young people that vaping was a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
“In fact, now we’re seeing deaths related to vaping, so clearly it is not a safer alternative,” he said.
A new Ohio law raising the legal age to purchase vaping and tobacco products to 21 statewide takes effect in mid-October.
According to the 2019 Summit County Youth Risk Behavior Survey, while traditional high school cigarette smoking has fallen from 13.5% to 5.8%, high school e-cigarette use is at 25%, with 42% of high school students trying an e-cigarette. Almost 9% of middle schoolers use e-cigarettes, with 16% of middle schoolers trying them at least once.
According to the survey, e-cigarette use is significantly higher in the surburban Summit County communities than in the city of Akron, with Akron Public Schools spokesperson Mark Williamson saying although vaping is “within our list of concerns for student health and safety,” the district has not had a “significant, widespread issue with vaping.”
Contact reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, firstname.lastname@example.org and @EmilyMills818.