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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Clearing the air: Spokane Public Schools considers imposing fine for student vaping

Confiscated vaping items from North Central High School and other schools in the district. (Dan Pelle)
Confiscated vaping items from North Central High School and other schools in the district. (Dan Pelle)

As clouds continue to fill bathroom stalls in almost every building in Spokane Public Schools, the district is considering a new option to combat the teenage vaping epidemic: a stiff fine of $103 for repeat offenders.

The school board took no action on the proposal at Wednesday evening’s meeting but promised to consider it, partly because current options aren’t working.

Barely one month into the school year – and despite stepped-up educational efforts and a new statewide ban on the sale of flavored vaporizers – vaping incidents across the district are matching last year’s record-setting pace.

“Our numbers are steady, almost exactly parallel to where we were last year,” said Marybeth Smith, principal at Lewis and Clark High School.

Through Oct. 11, the district reported 72 tobacco-related incidents, the vast majority of which were related to vaping. That number was 75 at this time last year, although tobacco-related suspensions and expulsions have fallen from 12 to six.

Those numbers seemed to indicate that vaping is here to stay; two years ago, the district reported only one-third as many incidents.

Tobacco-related incidents – the vast majority from vaping – increased dramatically last year, from 181 incidents in 2017-18 to 560. Of those, 34 occurred in elementary schools.

The proposal would cite repeat offenders age 16 and older with a Class 3 civil infraction, which carries a $103 fine.

The nearby Mead and Central Valley school districts already employ the fines, said Shawn Jordan, director of secondary schools.

The board could take action on the proposal as soon as its next meeting on Nov. 6. However, the idea got a tepid reception from some members.

“I think it will be an interesting conversation and a difficult conversation,” said board member Deana Brower, who considered the balance between health concerns and the severity of a $103 fine.

Board member Jerrall Haynes was against the idea.

“I have a real hard time wrapping my mind around a citation and getting courts involved,” Haynes said.

The district has employed all manner of proactive and punitive actions to combat the epidemic. They include individual meetings, educational packets, accountability essays, in-school intervention and suspension.

Another countermeasure – vaping detectors – also was discussed.

Earlier this week, the Freeman School District announced the installation of vaping detectors in bathrooms and other areas.

Installed high on a wall or ceiling, the instrument emits a signal when vapor is detected. At the same time, a school can employ existing cameras to identify who was in the vicinity when the vapor alarm was triggered.

In Utah, the Wasatch School District has installed more than 40 vape sensors, targeting every bathroom at its lone high school and two middle schools at a total cost of about $40,000.

Comparable coverage in Spokane would cost more than $200,000, but Jordan said the district is examining detection products.

However, Jordan and other administrators have noted that hundreds of hours have been lost to vaping enforcement.

Every day, students play cat-and-mouse with teachers as they inhale from e-cigarettes that are no larger than a thumb drive. Outside the classroom, administrators are diverted to bathroom patrols.

Spokane isn’t alone in its struggle to stop students from vaping.

According to 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey data, current e-cigarette use among middle and high school students increased alarmingly from 2017 to 2018, with over 3.6 million kids currently using e-cigarettes in 2018.

“The national trend is reflected here in Spokane,” Jordan said.

It’s too early to tell whether use will decrease following the statewide imposition of a 120-day ban on the sale of flavored vaporizers.

The products’ enticing flavors, from bubble gum to chocolate to popcorn, are cited by critics as an enticement to youngsters.

“Our frustration is that our children are victims of corporate interests that are not their interests,” Smith said.

School districts also hope that another new law – raising from 18 to 21 the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products – will decrease the spread of vaping devices.

The law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

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