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‘We’re all behind’: Schools, parents struggle to rein in teen vaping

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Vaping devices are displayed on a table.
A wave of reports tying vaping to lung damage has administrators and parents sounding alarms as the school year begins. Some school leaders say the problem has morphed into a time-consuming disciplinary issue.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Vaping worries surfaced in the Hopkins schools about two years ago, but the concerns weren’t driven by parents or teachers. Instead, a student-led health committee came to Holly Magdanz and other district leaders asking for help confronting the issue.

“It really threw myself and the two other staff advisors for kind of a loop,” recalled Magdanz, who coordinates the district’s wellness programs. “We were wondering: Vaping, how big of a deal is it?”

It’s turned out to be huge in Hopkins and districts across Minnesota and the country — a public health problem that many adults did not see coming and are struggling now in homes and schools to keep in check.

It’s mushroomed into a time-consuming disciplinary issue for many school leaders. A recent wave of reports tying vaping to lung damage has administrators and parents even more concerned as the school year begins.

“Parents and teachers and school administrators,” said Magdanz, “I think we’re all behind and we’re trying to catch up.”

‘Free to pee’?

Stillwater High School Principal Rob Bach
Stillwater High School Principal Rob Bach
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Across the Twin Cities from Hopkins, Stillwater High School Principal Rob Bach said he and his colleagues are also spending a lot of time on the vaping epidemic. It’s not the most serious behavioral problem, but it’s become a nagging one.

“There are other things that we may deal with. But in terms of just sheer volume of what we process, it’s pretty darn close,” said Bach, who’s also the father of two high schoolers.

“I’m constantly worried,” he added. “And yet like probably like most parents, I trust that the conversations that I’ve had with them have had an impact.”

Vaping became something of a public relations issue for Stillwater after some students protested bathroom closures with what they called a “free to pee” campaign last school year.

This year, some bathrooms will be locked when students are in class. Students caught vaping will have a harder time getting passes to bathrooms that are open during class time, said Bach.

Staff members have been “assigned a bathroom or a hallway, kind of essentially to monitor and patrol during a passing time,” he added. “It’s friendly. It’s not intended to be confrontational or anything like that. But just that sheer supervision in and of itself is a pretty big deterrent.”

Stillwater and other school districts around the country are also eyeing a more high-tech approach. Newly developed detectors can identify aerosol from vaping in areas off limits to video surveillance such as bathrooms and locker rooms. But they’re expensive.

Popular detectors sold by one company go for about $1,000 each. Large spaces require multiple detectors, making the technology unaffordable for many schools.

‘Everybody does it’

E-cigarettes were once viewed as less problematic than conventional cigarettes, still part of the cat-and-mouse games of teens pushing boundaries, but not something to panic about.

That’s changed over the past few years as the vaping industry and the health concerns around it have exploded.

Kyra Hasbargen (left) and her daughter, Kya Scholler.
Kyra Hasbargen (left) discovered her daughter, Kya Scholler, (right) was using e-cigarettes when a delivery arrived at the family’s home a few years ago.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News
Kyra Hasbargen, her daughter Kya talk about their vaping experience
by MPR News

Kya Scholler was 14 when she first bought vaping products online. Her mother, Kyra Hasbargen, eventually found out when a delivery arrived at the family’s home outside of International Falls, Minn.

“I had intercepted a package and opened it up and found a vape thing in there and these juices and I kind of freaked out,” Hasbargen recalled. “I was just like, ‘What in the world is going on? How does a 14-year-old obtain this sort of thing?’”

Kya, now 17, says she’s spent thousands of dollars on vaping equipment and liquids, although the e-cigarette itself is relatively inexpensive. 

Juul, the most popular device among young people, runs about $20 on sale. It's easily concealable and looks remarkably like a flash drive. Small containers of liquid containing nicotine fit onto the unit. 

“Everyone does it" she said of vaping, "even people you wouldn’t even expect that are super athletic and all that."

Kya Scholler holds a vaping device.
Kya Scholler holds her Juul, e-cigarette. She started vaping when she was 14.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Addicted to the nicotine, she said she and her friends got to the point where each was vaping the equivalent of one-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day. “It, like, became like my phone where I almost felt lost if I didn’t have it.”

Kya said she recently quit for good because the e-cigarettes eventually sickened her and her friends. She recalled a stretch were she and two other friends were “constantly sick, like a cold sick, from it.”

She also found herself short of breath, with chest pains sharp enough she wore a heart monitor for awhile. Results came back normal, but she didn’t feel normal.

“It was almost like a really sharp pain, like almost like my heart was stopping,” she said.

‘Brain shift’ needed

While Hasbargen is relieved her daughter is no longer vaping, she is beside herself over the issue of kids having such apparent access to vaping materials. She has a younger daughter, Pahtynn, who at 11 years old is nearing the age Kya started her journey with e-cigarettes.

“These companies need to be held liable. These kids keep getting younger and younger and there’s no way for parents to even know.”

Public health officials say a big challenge facing them is countering the widely held notion that e-cigarettes are safe alternatives to conventional tobacco use.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Juul, telling the company it violated federal regulations by touting its vaping products as safer than traditional tobacco cigarettes.

Holly Magdanz coordinates the Hopkins School District’s wellness programs.
Holly Magdanz coordinates the Hopkins School District’s wellness programs. “Parents and teachers and school administrators – I think we’re all behind and we’re trying to catch up,” she says.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Education and public health officials agree that the best approach is to teach students and their parents that science does not back up claims vaping is a safe alternative to conventional smoking.

In schools this fall, new anti-vaping posters were up in halls and classrooms. Hopkins students helped design some of them, which the state Health Department made available online.

School districts are holding meetings with parents to teach them about the dangers and prevalence of electronic cigarettes and vaping, hoping adults can do more to spot their use and snuff it out.

Kids as young as elementary students need to be warned about nicotine addiction and vaping, and educators need to do more than police the behavior, said Magdanz, the Hopkins schools’ wellness coordinator.

“In addition to the prevention and the intervention in the schools or homes,” she said, “we need to be openly talking about cessation — kind of a brain shift in terms of not just punishing the kids but really seeing that this is a serious health issue that we to help support them and to get them to stop.”