For those who cared enough to attend, Spokane’s first vaping symposium was a breath of fresh air.
On Thursday night at North Central High School, the audience heard from experts and educators who gave them the cold facts: That from 2016 to 2018, vaping nearly doubled among the state’s sixth- and eighth-graders. That one-third of high school seniors admitted to vaping in the previous 30 days.
They also were enlightened about the sophisticated marketing campaigns that have ensnared a new generation into nicotine addiction, the dangers of vaping and what school and health officials are trying to do about it.
But the most powerful messages came from four high school students who don’t use vapes but pay the price every day – in lost instruction time, fallen friendships and fears of being labeled a snitch if they dare to speak out.
On Thursday night, they spoke out anyway.
If this was Spokane’s first step in educating the public about the teenage vaping epidemic, it was the youngsters who put their bravest foot forward.
They answered tough questions from the crowd of 100 and posed some of their own. The biggest question, given that the NC Theater was 90% empty, was: Where are the parents?
In many cases they were home vaping, then going to bed and leaving their JUULs on the coffee table for their kids to borrow the next day.
Panic in the hallways
The moderator, Jill Royston, confirmed as much later during a conversation with parents.
“There are parents who tell their kids, ‘I’m OK with you vaping,’ ” said Royston, a student assistance specialist who is based at North Central but employed by the Northeast Washington Educational Service District 101.
“The problem is that we are not educating our population enough about what’s happening, how that substance is affecting their brains,” Royston said.
One of the student panelists, NC senior Kyle Seedal, recalled a friend who gave vaping a try “and now does hard drugs and is in trouble with the law.”
That was an eye-opener, but the other students had plenty of other examples to offer.
At Rogers High School, junior Andre Ramsey has seen panic in the hallways when someone realized he’d left his vape charger in class and was sprinting to retrieve it.
“That was really something that opened people’s eyes because they were pushing people out of the way in the hall,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey also has witnessed addictions so profound that during a classroom lecture, students will turn away from the teacher, take a whiff and conceal the vapors by blowing into a sleeve.
“It’s very distracting,” Ramsey said. “In the class you get sidetracked by the fact that they have the audacity to use their vape products while the teacher is talking. While they are doing this, you can’t pay attention to the lesson.”
The battle for the bathrooms
At many schools, non-vaping students can’t pay attention because they couldn’t make it to the bathroom between classes due to a logjam of vapers. Often, they must excuse themselves during class to use the bathroom break they were denied between classes.
At Lewis and Clark, junior Katarina Kenlein often sees bathrooms that have been closed after a heavy vaping session.
“You’re not punishing the kids who are vaping,” Kenlein said. “It ends up hurting the kids who aren’t vaping because it’s (using the bathroom) not practical because the 5-minute passing period.
“Teachers have become more understanding, but it’s very hard when you can’t use the bathroom because there are 10 people in there, vaping,” Kenlein said.
In the war against vaping, bathrooms have become the front line. At Ferris High School, teachers shave 10 minutes off their prep time, pair up and patrol the stalls.
It’s the same at North Central, where Royston regularly makes the rounds. Once, she entered a well-populated bathroom and announced to the inhabitants in the corner stall that “It smells really fruity in here ladies – what’s going on?”
The door opened and one girl responded with the excuse that “we’re gossiping.”
“I’m pretty sure you can do that in the hallway,” countered Royston, who marched seven girls out of a stall meant for one.
Truths and consequences
“One of them was on my caseload,” said Royston, who told the girl, “You and I are going to be talking.”
“The goal is prevention,” Royston said during an event that was co-sponsored by Spokane Public Schools and the Spokane Regional Health Center.
However, some in the audience wanted to talk about consequences. One man pointed out that neighboring districts employ fines as a deterrent.
That option was brought up at a recent Spokane Public Schools board meeting but tabled earlier this month over concerns about disproportionate discipline against disadvantaged students and their families.
However, students were receptive to the idea of some form of community service for vaping offenders.
At North Central, Seedal and Kayla Eddy are part of the Wellness Tribe, a student organization that addresses health-related issues in the student body.
Eddy suggested that instead of facing a fine, “they would be able to join us, and that would give them an education for their community service.”
Ramsey said community service “is an option, but it has to be enforced. We definitely need to make sure we are assigning them community services and we have to follow through with it.”
Parents must grow up
Speaking of which, the students had the same advice for parents who can’t or won’t deal with their children’s substance abuse: Grow up.
“They need to show that they care, and they need to talk to their kids,” said Seedal, whose mother is a teacher. “She sees kids who have no sense of consequences because parents don’t have any consequences for them.”
Ramsey was more blunt.
“We have a really big issue with parents trying to be the ‘cool parent’ and being a friend to their children,” he said. “They need to firmly represent (to their children) that what they’re doing isn’t OK.”
That was a major talking point Thursday night: communication between parents and children. However, they sometimes aren’t on the same channel.
Even as Ramsey spoke, his phone lit up with a Snapchat image of someone – a friend of a friend – vaping.
“Some kids think it’s cool to vape on camera and then show it to everyone,” Ramsey said.
Even cooler: Snapchat images disappear without a trace after a short period.
He flashed the yellowish image in front of the crowd, many of them old enough to recall high school days of two friends sneaking behind the building for a quick smoke.
Now kids employ social media and direct messages to plan their next vaping session and what flavors to bring to the bathroom stall.
Like the teens she serves, Royston has a Snapchat account. “But we’re not on the same channel,” she said.
That’s also true in the physical sense.
During a segment called “Hidden in Plain Sight,” many symposium attendees struggled to identify common items used in vaping: backpacks, phones and even hooded sweatshirts.
The vapes themselves are easy to obtain – through friends, older siblings and especially online as thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds falsify their ages while ordering.
Then they make sure they’re home before their parents when the package arrives.
“The online piece is something we can’t get our arms around,” Royston said.
That doesn’t mean parents should give up, students said.
Recalling a recent incident at Lewis and Clark, Kenlein encountered a shuttered bathroom and two signs on the door.
One sign proclaimed that the bathroom was closed because of vaping, but slapped over it was another piece of paper with a more poignant message.
“We’re vaping because we’re so stressed,” it read.
That struck a chord with Kenlein. “Why are so many of them depressed and self-harming?” she said. “It’s a huge issue.”
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