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Spokane Public Schools backs off vaping fines while other districts involve law enforcement

Confiscated vaping items from North Central High School and other schools in the district. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW / SR)
Confiscated vaping items from North Central High School and other schools in the district. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW / SR)

In a reversal from two weeks ago, Spokane Public Schools has backed off a proposal to impose a fine for students who repeatedly violate tobacco-related laws on school grounds.

Responding to the worsening teenage vaping epidemic, the district on Oct. 23 asked the board of directors to consider a $103 penalty for repeat offenders.

The question was on Wednesday night’s agenda for possible action. However, Shawn Jordan, the district’s director of secondary schools, told the board that the district is not pursuing that option for now.

The announcement appeared to be a surprise to the board, which had discussed the option on Oct. 23.

“I think it’s still something we have on the table, but right now, the more we’ve processed it with staff, the more we’re looking at some other ideas before we go to the citation,” Jordan said after the meeting.

That decision to hold off on citations was made Tuesday night after a meeting of school principals, Jordan said.

“After receiving feedback from our stakeholders, our interest is to strengthen some of the other interventions,” Jordan told the board.

Instead, the district will “beef up some of our staff presences, especially in the bathrooms, and remind students that it’s illegal to smoke on school grounds.”

Meanwhile neighboring districts – almost all of them – are working with local law enforcement. They’re using similar, stepped-up intervention, but have added a monetary disincentive to use tobacco or vape.

At Mead High School, an in-school deputy is authorized to issue a citation, a Class 3 Civil Infraction that carries a $103 fine, just like a traffic ticket.

Anecdotally at least, the idea is working.

“What we’ve found,” Mead Principal Jeff Naslund said, “is that teens don’t care about the health effects of vaping, but they don’t like it hitting their pocketbooks.”

“And if they’re not employed, it might hit the parents and could add some leverage for kids to work it off,” Naslund said.

That’s the policy in most districts in Spokane County. Currently, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department has a presence in the Mead, Central Valley, East Valley, West Valley, Deer Park, Riverside, Freeman and Liberty school districts.

As the vaping crisis has grown, Spokane Public Schools has employed several preventive actions to combat the epidemic. They include individual meetings, group meetings, educational packets and courses, accountability essays, in-school intervention and suspension.

Later this month at North Central High School, the district will hold a symposium with the Spokane Regional Health District, ESD 101 and the Washington Poison Center.

Experts will be joined by students who are helping lead peer conversations about vaping.

In the meantime, the problem has persisted in Spokane. Through Oct. 11, the district reported 72 tobacco-related incidents, the vast majority of which were related to vaping.

Two years ago, the district reported only one-third as many incidents.

Proponents of involving law enforcement to combat vaping in schools say it’s about more than issuing citations.

“Those deputies are there for security, but also to build relationships,” said Cpl. Mark Gregory, public information officer for the Sheriff’s department.

“We work with the schools to find the appropriate enforcement,” Gregory said. For the officers involved that means using discretion – just as they would on the streets.

“In other words, do I write a ticket to everyone for speeding? No,” Gregory said. “The deputies in those buildings, they work with the school district. … But if it’s a student (the deputy) has warned before, he would probably issues a citation at that point.”

For some high school principals, the monetary fines are preferable to long-term suspensions or expulsions.

“The last thing we want to do is send kids out,” Naslund said. “Any of these measures are in their best interest rather than sitting at home.”

In Idaho, officials have moved to a zero-tolerance policy.

“You get caught with a vape … you will get a ticket from me, which is $74, and on the school side it’s three days of in-school suspension.,” said Nate Peterson, a school resource officer at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene.

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