Vaping gains momentum at Summit County schools

A kit used by the Summit County Health Department to educate parents, teachers and community members about vaping. On the heels of Utah's first vaping-related death, South Summit High School suspended 14 football players for vaping on buses to and from games.
Park Record file photo

On the principals’ desks of secondary schools around Summit County, you’ll likely find typical items like a computer and notes. Then, there is one thing that you might not expect: a vaping device.

As some principals have been confiscating the items almost weekly, they keep them in their office until the police picks them up.

Caleb Fine, assistant principal of Park City High School, said that there has been a major uptick in vaping cases at the school this year – more than 10 have been reported — and there is growing concern about how to stop underage students from participating in the behavior.

Fine said that part of the problem is the covertness of vaping. Some of the devices are as small as a USB stick, and since students can vape without exhaling smoke, they can vape in the middle of class without a teacher having any idea. At Park City High School and Treasure Mountain Junior High, students have been caught vaping in the classroom.

“Just when you think that you have a trend, someone that is completely opposite of it is the next person that gets busted,”Caleb Fine,Park City High School

“They can do it so easily. All they have to do is put their hands in their mouth and they might have vaped,” Fine said.

Amy Jenkins, assistant principal of Treasure Mountain, said that the surge is also due to vaping devices being easier to acquire this year.

“The more kids who have it, the more kids want it, the more kids get it,” she said. “It’s a cycle that we’re stuck in.”

It does not help that many of the teachers and parents have not been aware of what vaping products look like until recently, Jenkins added.

Earlier this month, the Summit County Health Department met with faculty at both Treasure Mountain and South Summit High School to explain what vaping is and signs to catch it.

Emily Sutherland, principal of Treasure Mountain, said that, since the training, the amount of students getting caught has increased, but the jump is likely due to more eyes spotting suspicious behavior and noses smelling the fruity vapor released from the devices.

Wade Woolstenhulme, principal of South Summit High, said that the school caught its first students vaping right before the winter break, but he said that there were hints of vaping taking place at the school prior to that.

One of the ways the schools are addressing the problem is by educating parents as well.

On Feb. 5, Woolstenhulme said, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office plans to host an event for parents and community members to learn about vaping, among other issues.

Sutherland has sent out information about vaping and photos of devices to Treasure Mountain parents in newsletters and emails.

Woolstenhulme said many students have convinced their parents that vaping is OK since they are not using cigarettes, marijuana or other drugs.

“But there are so many chemicals and things in that vape that you are inhaling that, more likely, it is a lot worse than smoking,” he said.

Fine said that many students are ordering their vaping devices and vaping liquid from illegitimate sources that could be laced with chemicals the students are not aware of. Woolstenhulme said he heard from the school’s resource officer that he found meth in a vaping device at a school in Wasatch County.

Most of the time, students are not aware of the dangers when they are caught vaping, Fine and Sutherland said. When school officials ask why they do it, some say they like the buzz, some say they like the taste and some admit to using it as a way to relieve stress.

“We never like to hear people self-medicating for stress or anxiety,” Sutherland said.

When students say they vape for that reason, Jenkins said she and Sutherland coordinate with counselors at the school in order to give social and emotional support to the students.

While the reasons might be similar, the school officials agreed that there is no pattern when it comes to the type of students vaping.

“It’s 10-12th (grade), all races, all sexes,” Fine said. “Just when you think that you have a trend, someone that is completely opposite of it is the next person that gets busted.”

Jenkins, who said that there are cases almost weekly at the school, added that even high-performing students have been caught.

In order to stop the crisis, principals said that education is key. Each of the schools are now focusing on educating teachers, parents and students about the dangers of vaping and how to recognize signs of it.

Woolstenhulme and Fine said that health and physical education teachers are starting to weave vaping facts into their curriculum. Then there are Park City High’s Prime for Life courses, a substance abuse prevention curriculum that is open to all high school students and required for those who are caught vaping or with the devices on campus.

But, Fine said, the teachers are struggling to combat the internet’s loud voice that says vaping is better than hard drugs.

“These kids have smart phones in their hands and so much information at their fingertips,” he said. “Kids are seeing that it might be a ‘better alternative.’ And maybe it is, but it’s still a substance.”

School officials worry that the crisis will get worse before it gets better, but they are hopeful that as the schools — including middle and elementary schools — work together with the community to educate, the problem will diminish over time.

“Together, we’ll change it faster,” Jenkins said. “If we’re doing it all by ourselves here, it’s not going to change very quickly.”


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