With the start of a new year this past week, area schools are redoubling their efforts to stem the use of e-cigarettes and other vaping devices among students.
But administrators began the year with an extra tool in their tool box: a change in state law explicitly prohibiting vaping of any kind on school campuses.
Signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in July, the law clarifies that vaping devices and e-liquids are not allowed in schools, whether or not they contain nicotine or some type of restricted substance, such as cannabis. Previously, state law specifically referred only to devices containing nicotine.
Breaking the statute could result in a violation and a fine of up to $100 per offense.
While many schools already had their own policies in place restricting vaping, the law adds weight to those rules, area administrators said.
“I think what it offers is one more legal avenue from the standpoint of, [law enforcement] can be involved,” said Brett Blanchard, principal of Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School in Jaffrey. “So in the past, it would really necessitate an illegal substance, because the device in and of itself in the past was not necessarily illegal. Especially if you’re 18, which some seniors are.”
In 2018-19, 33 students in the Jaffrey-Rindge district — 27 high-schoolers and six middle-schoolers — were found to have used vaping devices, according to Nicholas Handy, a district spokesman.
Robert H. Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, said in some cases, students in the Keene School District have been issued a citation by the school resource officer for vaping-related incidents. The district saw 28 such incidents last year, he said.
“I think [the law] gives a little extra strength to schools and facilities where it may not have been as clear,” Malay said. “And so, I think if that serves a purpose of deterring our students, our young people, from using these devices and getting into those areas we don’t really want them to be getting into, I think the law serves a very good purpose.”
But Monadnock Region administrators agreed that whether police should be involved, and to what degree, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“What I would like to see, if anything, is using law enforcement proactively rather than reactively to try to help send the message to kiddos that this is dangerous,” said Lisa A. Witte, superintendent of the Monadnock Regional School District.
Schools have been ramping up their prevention efforts, broaching the topic through assemblies, advisory time and outreach from student organizations. They’ve also engaged with parents and the wider community, such as with presentations from Monadnock Family Services or Breathe New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lung health issues.
Twenty-four percent of high school students in New Hampshire said they had used a vaping product in 2017, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, compared to 13 percent nationwide and 18 percent in the Monadnock Region. (See related story.)
In the Jaffrey-Rindge district, Blanchard said students and parents will be made aware that police might be called if the situation warrants it, like if a student is found vaping with an illegal substance.
But the district wants to focus on implementing a more therapeutic component to its response to vaping, he said, in some cases connecting students with cessation programs and other resources outside the school.
“The real message that we really need to keep getting out there happens to be the harmful effects. How well has crackdown worked on other things in this society, right?” Blanchard said. “It helps, but you really have to have a more positive message.”
Recent cases of what doctors believe are vaping-related illnesses have made news headlines over the past few weeks, stoking national conversations about how to keep youth from using the devices.
Calls for more research on the health effects of vaping have also amplified. A 2018 study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found increased levels of carcinogenic compounds in the urine of teenagers who vape compared with those who don’t.
Administrators pointed to the way these products are advertised as a significant factor in their popularity, noting that the bright colors and “fun” flavors — like bubblegum, cotton candy and watermelon — can draw youth in.
Witte said seeing people using the devices in public can also normalize it for students, much like cigarettes were normalized decades ago. The Monadnock district, which covers the towns of Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy, recently revamped its health curriculum to include more information about the dangers of vaping, she said.
“There’s the opportunity when you look at curriculum to make it more contemporary. So this is something that we can certainly include as part of when we talk about healthy lifestyles,” she said.
School counselors can also play a significant role in prevention and response efforts on campus, Malay said, such as Keene High’s student assistance counselor, Jennifer Whitehead, who students may be referred to in instances of vaping.
These efforts are just as important as the legal underpinning, he said.
“I don’t think that there’s a silver bullet that’s going to change anything,” Malay said. “I think it’s a combination of things that is going to have the greatest impact over a larger group of individuals — whether it’s the state law, whether it’s the awareness that we’re trying to do.”