Education and discipline: Hawkins BOE wants to address vaping epidemic

Jeff Bobo • Oct 6, 2019 at 3:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — It’s hard to turn on the news these days without hearing about a vaping-related tragedy, and Hawkins County school board members want to make sure none of those stories originate from one of their schools.

That’s why the Board of Education asked Director of Schools Matt Hixson Thursday to develop a plan for educating students about the danger of vaping and e-cigarettes and to study different disciplinary options.

BOE Vice Chairman Debbie Shedden presented a report indicating that in the first two months of the school year there have been 54 vaping “incidents” reported in Hawkins County schools.

Cherokee High School had 20; Volunteer High School had 24; Surgoinsville Middle School had seven; Church Hill Middle School had two; and Church Hill Intermediate School had one.

Student school board representatives Tyler Lawson from Volunteer and Cooper Bolton from Cherokee told the BOE that vaping is rampant in their schools. Burton said he was “shocked” that the numbers quoted by Shedden were that low.

In Tennessee, there have been 36 cases of vaping-related illnesses as of Sept. 26.

On Sept. 25, Monroe County officials confirmed that a high school student was flown to a Knoxville hospital due to a vaping-related illness.

A new generation of nicotine addicts

“That scent of cool mint or mango that sometimes comes from the school bathrooms or the back of the school bus, that is evidence of the growing, widespread use of e-cigarettes by middle or high school students,” Shedden told the board. “Federal officials call it an epidemic of youth use. They estimate that the number of high school students who use e-cigarettes — sometimes called ‘vapes’ for their scented vapor — has risen by about 75 percent over the past year to about three million students, overtaking tobacco products in popularity.”

Shedden added, “One of the most popular is the Juul, equipped with kid-friendly flavors like fruit medley, and it’s packaged to look like a sleek computer flash drive that can be tucked away into a person’s fist or pocket and charged in a USB port. Each Juul cartridge contains roughly the same amount of nicotine as 20 cigarettes.”

The purpose of the e-cigarette is to give a “jolt of nicotine” to the user, and Shedden noted that the devices are creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.

Some startling vaping statistics

On Monday, the National Institute for Drug Abuse issued a report stating that nearly 21% of high school seniors across the country admitted vaping a nicotine product within the last 30 days, up from 11% a year ago.

That’s the largest reported increase of any substance use among adolescents in more than 40 years.

On Tuesday, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory urging local restrictions on e-cigarettes, including taxes and indoor bans aimed at deterring young people.

“We need to educate our children”

Shedden said, “Mostly what my research told me is that we need to educate our children. They need to hear the statistics, and they need to know the harm that these e-cigarettes can bring.”

Hawkins County BOE policy treats e-cigarette infractions at the same level as being caught on campus with a cigarette, which is a Level 3 infraction that will cost a first offender 1-5 days of suspension.

Cherokee’s Bolton, who is a senior, told the BOE that some students aren’t deterred by the threat of suspension.

“If you give them OSS, they’ll thank you”

“I’m an office aid in the Freshman Academy, and we have to keep the bathrooms locked most of the time because you walk in there and it’s freshly mint-scented or mango-scented,” Bolton said. “Most of the kids, the (Level 3) 40 points don’t matter to them. They kind of prefer in school detention because they can relax and sit there. … To them it’s more of a vacation.”

Lawson, also a senior, told the BOE that vaping is rampant at Volunteer as well, although regular old cigarette flavor is more common than mango.

“We had a really bad problem at the end of last year,” Lawson said. “You could not go into one of our restrooms without smelling like a cigarette. We thought that the cure was to lock the restrooms. All that did was make students late for class because they had to walk across the school to go use the restroom. To help with disciplinary plans for this, I feel like we have to inform more, but we’re going to have to really punish more than what we’re doing because like (Burton) said, 40 points don’t matter to some kids. If you give them OSS, they’ll thank you.”

“I would like to see some stronger deterrents”

Hixson noted that Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Renee Larkin, who is the school system’s lead SRO, consulted the state attorney general this past summer about how to best deal with vaping violations on campus.

“The immediate suggestion was to treat vaping incidents as a tobacco violation, but we feel strongly, as the board does, that we probably need to revisit how we deal with that,” Hixson said. “We are sending educational material to all of our schools and principals, getting out as much information as we can that’s been released through the Department of Education, both on the national level and the state level.”

A meeting is scheduled for Oct. 14 between Hixson, Larkin, central office supervisors, and school health officials to discuss a vaping education program, as well as to discuss possible changes to the disciplinary consequences.

BOE chairman Christ Christian said, “I would like to see some stronger deterrents to prevent these children from going like, ‘Oh it’s just one day of in school suspension, no big deal.’ If you get airlifted to the hospital, it’s a big deal.”