As the start of the 2019-2020 school years begins, Cambridge-Isanti High School Principal Dr. Steven Gibbs and School Resource Officer Kevin Gross hope to focus on education for students found vaping or in possession of vaping materials.

“I think it’s been about four or five years that vaping has really been an issue, but the ease of access has really spiked within the last two years,” Gibbs said. “I think it’s really easy for students to get their hands on these devices now, and that’s one of the big issues.”

With the lack of knowledge throughout the health community on long-term causes and the rise in illness facing teens who use vaping materials, the concern is heightened in both the education community as well as in homes.

“There’s high amounts of nicotine in the fluid, and the Juuls that students are using can often add up to the equivalent of three packs of cigarettes per day with the amount of nicotine in there,” Gross said. “It’s not only the amount of nicotine that we know isn’t good for the undeveloped brain of a teenager, but there’s the flavorings that they’re using.”

According to an article by a pulmonologist that Gross read, the flavorings in the vaping juice are one of the biggest causes of the health concerns for youth along with the fact that consumers are inhaling the aerosolized liquid.

“This article I read by a pulmonologist said kids are saying, ‘Because it’s food grade, I can take that into my body.’ Well, not into your lungs, is what the doctor was saying. They’ve got these flavorings that are developing the diseases, like what they are calling popcorn lung; by vaporizing these materials they are getting them into their lungs,” Gross said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the number of confirmed or probable cases of vaping-associated lung injuries has increased to 32 and another 16 people are under review as of Sept. 16.

“This is an epidemic across the country. It’s broadcasted as the ‘safe alternative to smoking,’ and when they hear that, they hear the word ‘safe,’” Gibbs said. “We’re seeing the usage spike, we’re seeing these young adults and kids hospitalized and even dying and they’re pointing to vaping as the cause.”

“We have to tell our kids we care about you enough to not ignore this, and we care enough about you to educate you,” Gibbs added.

With a focus on education and less on constant punishment, both Gibbs and Gross teamed up with other officials and developed a new plan for Cambridge-Isanti High School students with education at the forefront.

“The big thing with this program is, I don’t want to come in here and just be a ticket writer because we could easily do that; that would be an easy solution. I want to instead give those students another opportunity, an opportunity to learn what they’re doing to their bodies and the choices they’re making as well as the possible effects it could have on them,” Gross said.

Prior to the new education-based plan, enforcement included ticketing students with an administrative ticket.

“I’ve heard that the ticket was almost a badge of honor for some students and they were Snap Chatting them saying, ‘look what I got,’ and the tickets were one way to tackle the problem, but it wasn’t very effective,” Gross said. “We have to readjust and that’s what we’re doing with the education piece.”

On Sept. 9 the school sent out a letter to students and parents making them aware of the new anti-vaping pilot program, which will require an education piece rather than a punishment for those caught vaping or with a vaping device. For students who are assigned to the class and chose not to attend, they will be referred to juvenile court.

“We are starting a campaign, ‘see something say something,’ it’s a campaign that we will put out with posters that will be put out throughout the school with a QR code and an email address on it that students will be able to email confidentially if they see something, like vaping in the bathrooms,” Gross said. “It is getting harder and harder to detect, and having the students on our side will help a lot because we can’t be everywhere at once.”

With anywhere between 1,500 and 1,600 students at the school on any given day, it’s up to them to partner with staff and administration to take a stand, according to Gibbs.

“The one thing that I’ve seen over the last 12 months is peers coming against this and saying this isn’t OK,” Gibbs said. “Students don’t like walking in and seeing their peers doing this, there is a ground swell of people coming against this, and that’s what we need to combat this. It can’t be done by just the school; we need the parents and students as well.”

Noting a partnership between the school, law enforcement and city and county officials, Gibbs noted the issue won’t be solved by just one entity, but by the community working together to end the epidemic effecting the youth.

“I’ve always been a believer that you can consequence students all day long, but you can’t change their behavior unless you educate people. Sending a student home and telling them come back changed rarely works, but working with that student, whether it’s one-on-one or in small group to give them good information, I believe is what changes behavior,” Gibbs said.

“You have to get to the core, you have to give students a reason to change, and very rarely is that reason a consequence. We believe the reason a person changes is accurate information given by a caring adult,” Gibbs added.

Looking forward at combating the vaping epidemic, the school is also looking at additional education opportunities, including bringing in health professionals to help in education, as well as the dedication of the community in supporting the push to encourage students to stop vaping and learn what it can do to their bodies.

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