If they didn’t know already, Spokane Public Schools board members got the news Wednesday night:
A deep fog has descended on restroom stalls at almost every school in the district, and it isn’t drifting away any time soon.
Vaping is a national epidemic, but it’s far worse in Spokane. From Hillyard to the South Hill, kids are picking up the habit sooner and staying with it longer.
Last Friday at Glover Middle School, Principal Mark Lund was called out of a meeting to learn that seven students were using a vaping pen that contained THC.
As he held up the pen Wednesday night, Lund said he was proud that all seven students are still at Glover.
However, he lamented that somehow, the school had failed.
“Those were seven students we didn’t have strong enough connections with,” Lund said.
And the problem is getting worse, board members learned.
After surveying 230,000 students in 900 schools throughout the state, the Healthy Youth Survey found that 21% of 10th graders had tried vapor products in the previous 30 days.
In Spokane, that number was 25%, the board was told during a presentation called “Vape: Rising above the Fog,” by Shawn Jordan, the district’s director of secondary schools, Jodi Harmon, director of student services, and Jill Royston, a student assistance specialist at North Central High School.
The local statistics were even more shocking at the middle school level. Statewide, 10% admitted using the easily concealed vaping devices. In Spokane: 20% of eighth-graders had tried vaping, while 13% had used another form of tobacco – chiefly cigarettes, cigars and hookahs.
Those numbers are also far in excess of national trends, where vaping use is about half that in Spokane.
There wasn’t much good news to report, other than a big drop in cigarette use as more teens turn to e-cigarettes.
For school administrators in Spokane, the spike in vaping has meant hundreds of hours spent in enforcement.
Two years ago, the district reported 125 disciplinary measures tied to tobacco use, with 16 suspensions or expulsions. Last year, the numbers rose to 181 discipline actions and 38 suspensions or expulsions..
As of last week, Spokane schools have had 461 disciplinary actions and 55 suspensions or exclusions.
Of those, 323 involved high school students. Another 97 occurred at the district’s six middle schools and 27 children in elementary schools were disciplined for tobacco use.
Another eye-opening stat: 10 elementary students have been suspended or expelled this year for tobacco-related incidents.
All students pay a price in the form of restrooms closed after the discovery of vaping devices.
“I do want kids to use our bathrooms and not have them smell like a Caribbean tanning salon,” North Central Principal Steve Fisk said.
The district is continuing to fight the trend with prevention education.
According to the Healthy Trends Survey, youths do not perceive vapor product use as risky for their health. Students also consider vaping products easy to find and buy.
Only about one-third of 10th-grade students statewide perceived great risk of harm from using e-cigarettes regularly, although 74% saw great risk from smoking one or more packs of cigarettes daily.
They also see vaping as having less of a stigma than cigarettes.
District officials are countering with greater emphasis on vaping awareness in classrooms. Royston has led outreach efforts on the North Side, but Lewis and Clark Principal Marybeth Smith noted that South Hill schools are sharing one specialist.
“We don’t have enough resources,” Smith said. “Who is going to have those conversations?”
Given the district’s financial straits, that may not change.
“It just shows how underfunded we are for basic education,” said Superintendent Shelley Redinger.
The presentation doubled as a primer, with a few surprises. Board member Jerrall Haynes seemed incredulous that many high schoolers weren’t aware of the health risks of vapes, most of which contain nicotine.
School principals noted that while nearly all students find cigarette smoke distasteful, they don’t feel the same way about vaping.
“There’s no stigma,” Lund said.
The widespread availability of vaping products was a surprise to school board president Sue Chapin, who asked “Where are these things sold?”
The answer: seemingly everywhere.
All agreed that schools need to take back their restrooms.
“That’s not just a privilege – it’s a right to be able to use the bathroom,” board member Deana Brower said.
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