BROOKSVILLE — Over the past year, schools across the country — along with parents, top government officials and law enforcement — have looked for ways to curb the growing popularity of e-cigarette vaping among teens. That fight is taking root in Hernando County, too, where vaping rates have skyrocketed. Local officials fear the habit will get more students in trouble at school — and, at times, with the law. Possessing e-cigarettes is illegal for people under 18.
"Holy mackerel, what's going on in these schools is unbelievable," said Hernando County School Board member Gus Guadagnino, when the subject arose at an informal meeting last week. "Something needs to be done, and I know we're working on it, but something needs to be done quickly."
In 2018, the number of Hernando County school students disciplined for vape-related infractions — 174 — was a 128 percent increase over the previous year's number, said Jill Kolasa, the school district's supervisor of student services. That number seemed to reflect nationwide growth last year, when more than 20 percent of high school students vaped, up from 11.7 percent in 2017, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"This was nothing two years ago," Kolasa said. "It went up significantly last year."
Nearly 5 percent of middle schoolers nationwide vaped last year, too, according to the FDA. The agency posited that the candy store-like variety of flavorings available for nicotine-juice pods draw in young people. Dominant vape-maker Juul’s offerings include mango, mint and cucumber.
Among the concerns of school officials is the covert designs of e-cigarettes. Juuls resemble flashdrives, for example, and can be charged by plugging them into a computer. And because vaping lacks the smell and smoke of cigarette smoking, it's easier for students to get away with vaping in school.
“Even if the parents do begin to question, it’s really easy to deny, and I know that’s something the teachers and administration are struggling with, too," said Ryan Bradley, the School Board's student representative. "Even when a student’s reported, it’s so easy for them to hide, unless you’re going to do a complete search.”
School Board member Linda Prescott said that parents and teachers simply aren't aware enough, and that an early step in confronting the problem should be educating them.
Vaping has attracted young people as an emerging technology, but Kolasa said its newness has left authority figures to catch up and has downplayed potential health risks for users.
The school district's drug education efforts address vaping, Kolasa said, and the technology will get an increased focus moving forward. The district will start with students as young as fifth grade, who may be on the precipice of encountering the habit in middle school.
Prescott wants to talk to other school board members around the state for more specific techniques to target vaping.
"We need to take the glamour out of it," she said.
Experts have written that kids don't perceive vaping as harmful, so anti-cigarette-style public service announcements and drug education are ineffective. They prefer methods that paint tobacco-and-drug abstinence as a cool form of self-expression and anti-corporate rebellion.
There are a few silver linings in Hernando schools, though.
School Board members said they feared that kids were vaping THC oil in school, which could spell even more legal trouble for offenders who get caught. THC vaping has gone up slightly, Kolasa said, but the vast majority of vape-related incidents still involve nicotine.
When students do get caught, the district’s individual and parent counseling seems to work. Hardly any come back as second-time offenders, Kolasa said.
"The majority of these kids, they don't return," she said. "They learn from it."
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.