Why WDMCS Is Raising Awareness And Educating Parents, Students About Growing Vaping Trend

National studies in recent months have shown that an increasing number of students are vaping. The latest recorded data has even prompted U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to declare e-cigarette use among youth as an “epidemic.”

According to the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey — which sampled eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders from schools nationwide — reported the use of vaping nicotine specifically in the 30 days prior to the survey nearly doubled among high school seniors, from 11 percent in 2017 to nearly 21 percent in 2018, the data says.

Looking solely at the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS), the spike is evident here, too. Tobacco violations (which e-cigarettes are classified as by Board of Education policies) has increased compared to years’ past, records show.

The culprit, WDMCS administrators say: Vaping.

And the district is prepared to combat it.

What Exactly Is Vaping?

Vaping, as defined by the American Heart Association, is the use of an e-cigarette — a battery-operated device that heats liquid to release an aerosol (or vapor) that’s inhaled by the user. Some popular e-cigarette brands include Blu, JUUL, and Logic, among others, with devices resembling a writing pen or a USB flash drive for your computer

These liquids, also known as “e-juices” or “e-liquids,” come in a variety of flavors, like cotton candy and watermelon. These liquids may contain nicotine, which the Food and Drug Administration labels as a tobacco product for regulation purposes.

The Des Moines Register reported in September 2018 that Iowa had banned the sale of “alternative nicotine products” to minors in July 2014, and the state required e-cigarette retailers to hold a valid tobacco permit. The federal government made sales to minors illegal nationwide in 2016, the Register reported.

Dr. William Schupp

William Schupp, M.D.

William Schupp, M.D., is a family physician with the Iowa Clinic. Schupp said one e-cigarette cartridge is “a pack-and-a-half of a cigarette’s worth of nicotine.”

“You might even be getting two packs of nicotine in one of those cartridges,” he explained. “Some argue that there’s less additives in an e-cigarette compared to a regular cigarette, but there’s studies being done on what else is in there, like heavy metals and arsenic.

“ … Your chance for smoking cigarettes is three times higher. You’re more likely to end up smoking as well, because you’re addicted to nicotine — the most addictive substance there is.”

Schupp added how he himself has seen the uptick in e-cigarette use among his youth patients; he said a child as young as 12 years old admitted to him that they were vaping.

“Vaping is a lot more common than other drugs or alcohol because it’s easier to get your hands on,” he explained. “All of these products contain nicotine. There’s no nicotine-free JUUL. I think people misunderstand how much nicotine is in even the lowest dose of a JUUL.”

Virtually all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the American Lung Association says. Even the ones labeled “nicotine free” as there are no rules about how e-cigarettes or e-juices are made.

“This is not safe” Schupp said. “It is being targeted towards kids and the prevalence is shooting up just these past couple of years. There needs to be more awareness among everybody.”

By The Numbers: Vaping At WDMCS

There were 52 reported tobacco violations at WDMCS by the end of the first semester this school year, records show. The data goes back to the 2005-06 school year and ranges from grades 3-12.

Almost all of the tobacco violations this year, however, are e-cigarette related, said Joe Libby, Ed.D, executive director of Teacher and Learning Services at WDMCS. And the district has seen far more tobacco violations than in other areas, like alcohol, marijuana, or controlled substances.

“The numbers have just blown up over the last few years, and I would probably push this more toward the cheap and available resource with vape pens,” Libby explained.

Administrator head shot photo of Joseph Libby.

Joe Libby, executive director of Teaching and Learning Services at WDMCS.

Libby disagrees with Adams when referring this youth vaping craze as an “epidemic” — especially when only looking at WDMCS — but there is an obvious concern.

“I think this is something that is new and it’s a trend,” he said. “I also think it’s a lack of information; you don’t see a lot of the companies reminding folks that vaping also has nicotine in it. You hear commercials that say: ‘This is an alternative to smoking cigarettes.’ Many of them don’t say: ‘These still contain nicotine.’”

For comparison of the data: There were 14 violations during the 2017-18 school year, and just five in 2016-17. The lowest mark? Just three violations in 2014-15.

This school year, though, 21 violations — or 40 percent of the total violations districtwide, have occurred at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School. Principal Mitch Kuhnert said the sudden surge in tobacco violations began at the end of the last school year.

Each time there is a violation, Kuhnert said: “We confiscate the device and it’s given to the West Des Moines Police Department. Our (Valley Southwoods) policy is a day of out-of-school suspension for a first offense and you’ll get a $50 citation for tobacco use.

“Some of these cartridges (that go into vape pens) may just be a flavor, but if you’re using an e-cigarette of any kind it’s covered under the Board policy whether or not it contains nicotine. We follow the same policy all the way through.” See Board Policy 502.06.

Kuhnert said that empty cartridges, which contain e-juices that are attached to e-cigarettes, have been found in the school’s hallways and bathrooms. He added that some of the signs he, teachers, and staff check for regarding e-cigarette use among their students include a location’s smell (strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, etc.), a facility’s use beyond its intended purpose, and modified clothing to hide the device.

Consequences Of Vaping At WDMCS

The West Des Moines Community Schools is tobacco free within and upon all district property, per Board Policy 900.

For violations among students, Libby said, underage violators are ticketed by local law enforcement for being in possession of a tobacco product. Additionally, violators receive a minor suspension depending on their grade level and building.

“Discipline wise, the outcome is much less for what it would be for some of our other violations,” Libby explained. “The significant outcome for it is if you’re an athlete. Because the violations carry through from ninth grade to 12th grade, a single violation has a short-term ineligibility. But you’re second violation is much more significant and could cost you a season or the rest of your high school career.”

According to the Student Activity Code of Conduct, which is applied to students at both Valley Southwoods and Valley High School who participate in any athletic activity, extracurricular activity, and all co-curricular activity: On a first offense, a student will miss 10 percent of the full scheduled activity and be assigned 20 hours of community service if it is self-reported. If the district receives a report, however, the student will miss 20 percent of the full scheduled activity and 40 hours of community service. The student must also provide evidence of participation in a chemical abuse evaluation.

The second offense results in stricter penalties. If a student commits a second offense within 12 months of the date on which they committed the first, the student is ineligible to perform or compete in any activity for a full calendar year starting from the date of the second violation. The student cannot attend practices or participate in a student trip as part of a student group away from the district.

“If 10 percent of any activity schedule is less than one full contest or production, etc., the participant will miss one complete contest, or production, etc,” the Student Activity Code of Conduct reads.

A head shot of Brad Rose.

Brad Rose, athletics and activities director at Valley High School.

Brad Rose, athletics and activities director at Valley, said vaping is “the No. 1 violation we have that affects the code of conduct.” It’s even become a leading talking point among fellow athletics and activities directors at monthly Central Iowa Metropolitan League (CIML) meetings.

“The problem is that it’s so easy to hide and keep around and use while at school or on the bus,” Rose said. “You’re seeing more and more of those cases at school.

“ … Certainly vaping has taken over and become the latest trend.”

Current WDMCS tobacco policies don’t carry the same high-level penalties like alcohol, marijuana, or controlled substance violations do, Libby and Kuhnert said.

“Students feel more comfortable, I guess?” Kuhnert explained. “It’s an ‘even if I get caught, it’s a less of consequence if I was with a controlled substance or alcohol.’ We’re going to continue to work on that in this district to see if that needs to increase based on this scenario.

“But I think the biggest situation we’ve run into is that we’re communicating with the students much more regularly.”  

What WDMCS Is Doing To Educate, Raise Awareness

Libby said WDMCS works with the West Des Moines Police Department’s Youth Justice Initiative (YJI) to help raise awareness and provide information.

“Some of our students that do violate our codes either at school or in the community will get adjudicated to the YJI program, which is more of an educational opportunity,” he explained, adding how the partnership helps manage some of the district’s disciplinary responses. “It keeps them out of the legal system and gives them an opportunity to gather more information and resources that supports not only the student, but the family around what the violation may have been.

“It helps them create a stronger understanding how their actions affect their family and their community so they can make better choices in the future.”

An upcoming learning opportunity, however, is through WDMCS Community Education. This spring, the department is hosting a free, educational class for parents and guardians to learn more about vaping among youth. It will discuss the risks of vaping, why it’s popular among students, signs to look for, and advice on talking with your child about vaping.

The class is at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 25, in the Fairmeadows Room at the Learning Resource Center. View more information and register.

A head shot of Mitch Kuhnert

Mitch Kuhnert, principal at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School.

Kuhnert said any time there’s a chance to learn about the things that happen at WDMCS, “you need to be attending so you can get a better sense of what’s happening in our schools and educate yourself.”

“We want to share this,” Kuhnert explained. “Try to put aside that feeling of ‘I might be judged’ or ‘this might be a concern for my family.’ We would never take it that way as a group of educators.

“We look at it as we’re partners in this, and we need everyone to be involved so we can help control something like vaping among our students.”

The most important thing a class like this does, Rose pointed out: “It gives parents an avenue to start talking about these things with their child.”

“A class like this prepares us for the next thing that comes up,” he said. “We’re reaching out to our community and saying this is real. It doesn’t mean West Des Moines is bad or has a problem.

“What we’re saying is this is a real issue that students are facing.”