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Vaping is a growing problem among students. This is what Hall school leaders are doing about it
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These products, which had been confiscated by school leaders, show the diversity of vaping devices and the liquid nicotine or THC products smoked with them. - photo by Joshua Silavent

Logan Mitchell, a senior at North Hall High School, said vaping nicotine on campus is common because it’s so easy to disguise.

The vape liquid can be odorless, or smell like potpourri, unlike the distinct, clinging smell of tobacco smoke. And the device itself is easy to hide in a pocket or purse.

But because it’s so easy to conceal, it also means vaping is out in the open, with students known to vape in classrooms, bathrooms and elsewhere on campus.

“It’s that simple, but it’s what’s so difficult about finding it,” Mitchell told a committee of leaders and officials from Hall County Schools during a meeting on Thursday, March 28.

But it’s been found enough that school officials are moving fast to introduce new curriculum and penalties for students caught vaping.

Mitchell said he wanted to educate officials because he had been surprised by the prevalence of vaping on campus.

“I think it’s good to get the parents educated,” he said.

When the committee was first organized this year, Superintendent Will Schofield released an online video to alert students, families and the community that “rarely a week goes by these days where we don’t have students having significant physical reactions to utilizing vapes.”

Whereas school officials once celebrated the near cessation of cigarette use on school campuses, it seems vaping has stepped in as an alternative to a problem that had mostly vanished.

The large amounts of nicotine in vaping liquids, and the ability to “spike” it with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that causes intoxication, are especially worrisome to school officials.

Kevin Bales, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for Hall County Schools, said a tiered approach had been established for discipline that includes messaging about its prohibition on campus, educational curriculum about health and other consequences, and punishment for possession and use.

A first offense, for example, could include up to three days of in-school suspension with curriculum required for a student. Bales said school officials are working to incorporate vaping education in online tools already in place for other extended learning opportunities.

Second and third offenses could result in additional suspension days and referral to a disciplinary tribunal.

But there is discretion given to principals and a “range of consequences” in place for them to use, Bales said.

In the 1980s and ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon for public health awareness campaigns to portray tobacco users and drug addicts as lowlifes, losers and deadbeats.

That’s the opposite of what administrators, principals and teachers in Hall County Schools said they want to do as they launch a robust effort to counter the rising use of vaping devices among students.

“I’m not excusing it,” Schofield said. “We’re not really interested in discipline. We’re interested in changing behavior and health.”

Schofield told the committee he wants to see a proactive approach, where discipline becomes more a measure of education than punishment, where addiction is treated as a health issue rather than a moral failing.

“Instead of writing about their summer vacation up in the mountains, they can write about the consequences of vaping,” he said.

Schofield said it’s important to slip curriculum, like writing prompts, into existing studies such as language arts.

Committee members, including principals of several high schools, said they feel it is also necessary to introduce students to vaping education at earlier ages and at different grade levels.

The “Catch Your Breath” curriculum, for example, will be introduced at East Hall High, North Hall Middle, Johnson High, Flowery Branch High and C.W. Davis Middle largely through health and physical education courses.

Jamey Moore, principal of North Hall High, said curriculum introduced at his school for disciplinary purposes has been completed by 14 students. It includes links to articles and videos, for example, that educate students on how vaping affects their lives.

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Jamey Moore, principal of North Hall High School, speaks at a meeting of Hall County school officials on Thursday, March 28, 2019, about educational initiatives to counter rising vaping use among students. - photo by Joshua Silavent

Moore said there are plans to use additional online tools to educate students and their families – as well as introduce a “soft skills” homeroom course that addresses the potential impacts of vaping on a student’s health, financial, legal, relationship and job prospects.

It’s also important to educate teachers about how to identify vaping use and how to respond to it informatively and constructively, school officials said.

School officials said they also want to continue engaging community partners, such as the Northeast Georgia Health System, other school systems and Center Point, which provides mentoring, counseling and education for youth.

At North Hall High, Mitchell said he hopes to be part of educating his classmates about the consequences of vaping on campus.

“I just want to help the best I can,” he added.

“That coming from peers is much more powerful,” Schofield said.