By Ika Gottlieb
Sophomore Staff Writer
Everyone at Western knows something about vaping. Even if you never see the act itself, the bathrooms always smell of that particular sweet vapor, an imitation of bubblegum or tropical punch. Now, through the use of new technology, WAHS principal Jennifer Sublette aims to deter both potential vapers and those who already do.
With national teen use of nicotine at over 12%, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s no surprise that vaping is one of the most pressing issues for students and staff.
Not only is the purchase and possession of nicotine products illegal for minors in Virginia, the use of e-cigarettes comes with negative health effects. According to the Center for Disease Control, nicotine can harm teenagers’ developing brains and affect their learning and attention. However, vaping is still relatively new, so the long-term effects are unknown.
“It is an issue that school administrators, families, and even students who don’t vape have really spent a lot of energy and time worrying about,” said Sublette.
Jermaine Dyer, one of Western’s security staff members, estimated the number of current students at WAHS who have vaped at least once in the school building to be 50 or more.
Western has opted to invest in new technology to mitigate vaping. In November, Western installed vape detectors in the bathrooms. The $1,500 machines detect traces of nicotine vapor and notify administration and the security team, which includes two security staff members and a security coach. The staff then consults hallway cameras and waits for students to leave the bathrooms to determine potential culpability.
Administrators are facing issues with implementation, however. “[Students] go to the bathroom in groups… so it’s hard to differentiate who may be vaping,” Dyer said.
For example, senior Matthew May reported being searched by an administrator after using a bathroom in which other students were vaping. “I saw two people who were vaping in there while I was in the bathroom… I guess I was the first one to walk out,” May said.
At Albemarle High School, similar issues prompted a schoolwide remodel of the bathrooms. The school knocked down the surrounding walls and extended the stalls to be floor-to-ceiling, creating single-person, gender-neutral bathrooms equipped with vape detectors like Western’s. For AHS, the model seems to be working, with about a dozen vape detections within the first month of installation.
Sublette said she would not be opposed to a similar strategy if the situation warranted it. But she and other administrators “wanted to pilot [the vape detectors], rather than wait to see if we’re going to get that type of bathroom renovation” from the county.
Privacy is also an issue when thinking about ways to address vaping, she said. “Clearly, kids have their privacy. It’s a delicate balance… while we’re trying to respect the vast majority of kids who deserve that privacy, we’re very frustrated with some of the behavior that happens,” she said.
School bathrooms are a site of more problems than just vaping. “Vaping in the bathrooms is just a small percentage of what goes on in the bathroom,” Dyer said. “Usually, it’s just people doing elementary things like tearing stuff up… Nine times out of ten that’s why it’s closed—because something’s been broken down.”
Sublette said there was an unsuccessful attempt to destroy one of the vape detectors when it was installed. If a student did manage to destroy one, she said, “it would be a really serious consequence because they’re expensive. We would actually bring in the police if there was a situation with that level of vandalism.”
Sublette and Dyer emphasized that their primary goal is helping the students who vape. “[Students] are getting something out of vaping, and we’re just trying to figure out what it is and how to help them,” Dyer said.
Sublette plans to tackle the addiction problem that vaping may cause. Currently, she and the administrative team are in the planning stage of the program, working with Kristen Davis, the Region 10 worker at Western, and Alanah Horning, WAHS mental health professional, to develop a program to spread information about vaping. “We’ve gone after the discipline piece, and now we need to go after the addiction piece,” Sublette said.