School Board and Common Council discuss youth vaping
The Nome Public Schools Board of Education and the Nome Common Council met on Monday in a joint work session to discuss the issue of vaping in schools. For an hour and a half, the discussion centered around the current state of vaping at Nome-Beltz High School, what the administration is doing and what policies the city can implement to reduce usage amongst youth.
Nome Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Burgess started the meeting by explaining school board policies for nicotine vapes, which fall under the category of tobacco products policy, and marijuana or THC products, which fall under alcohol and drug substance policy. Not only are kids who possess nicotine products on campus in violation of school policy but also city, state and federal ordinances that say schools are smoke free environments and one can’t smoke within 50 feet of a school.
Students possessing either a nicotine or THC vape commit a Level 3, or serious, infraction and if a student is caught with a device, it usually results in their suspension from school. Other punishments include removal from student council and being barred from playing sports.
There is also a requirement of educating kids on drug and tobacco prevention, which is typically carried out in health classes, according to Burgess.
“This is something Ms. Smith has been working on this year to try and incorporate more explicit instruction and information to kids about vapes and their dangers,” Burgess said.
To search kids at school, Burgess explained, administrators only need to have reasonable suspicions that the student is in possession of a device, but they are very careful about searches.
Councilmember Scot Henderson asked how administration determines if a device has THC or nicotine. Nome-Beltz Middle High School Principle Teriscovkya Smith said, she’s become familiar with the devices the more she confiscates them, but she still reports it to the Nome Police Department every time because she is never sure of the vapes’ contents. “Especially after the overdoses last year, we default to calling law enforcement,” Smith said.
Burgess then showed the data of monthly triggers of vape sensors in Nome-Beltz bathrooms. The sensors were first installed in January. In May the sensors went off 147 times. Each time the sensor goes off, it notifies Nome-Beltz administrators through email, the sensors are connected to cameras in the hallway outside the bathrooms which take a short clip of the student exiting the bathroom following the sensor trigger. “You can imagine if this is going off two to three times a day how much of our administrators time is required to respond to this,” Burgess said.
This school year the sensor triggers have significantly dropped, with 45 alerts in September and 35 so far in October.
Smith says she doesn’t think the numbers mean a decline in vaping. Kids are becoming smarter at avoiding the bathrooms, Smith said, and doing something called “cancel vaping”, inhaling the smoke and holding it in their lungs until it dissolves.
Smith said to avoid the city ordinance fine of $500 and mandatory court appearance a significant number of students have come to her admitting they can’t go through the day without vaping.
Students are not as open with her about THC devices. “Right now, we have a sixth grader who is being paid to transfer the devices and carry them. It’s a pretty evolved system, where they know how to pass them to people,” Smith said.
To combat the passing around of devices, the school has purchased a metal detector wand but Smith has stopped spending as much time trying to catch kids. “To be honest, I ignored the sensors, because exclusionary discipline isn’t what’s going to work. It’s keeping the kid in the building, so that you can have conversations with them and figure out how to how to help them,” Smith said. “But there are so many kids carrying for other kids that now it’s too much of a cat and mouse game.”
Right now, if kids are caught with a device they are reported to the police and referred to Norton Sound Health Corporation’s CAMP department where they can participate in a program to avoid citation. Smith said counselors at Nome-Beltz are working with CAMP to create a Youth Court to bypass law enforcement consequences.
“We catch them. They are suspended for a day. They spend the day away from school, they procure a new vape,” Smith said. “If they’re addicted, pushing them out of school for a day is not working.”
Councilmember Henderson asked what population of the school is having a problem with vaping, or if it is just a certain group of kids.
Smith said she believes it’s impacting a majority of the campus, including honor roll students and athletes. There are regulations punishing student athletes for using devices, Smith said.
Council member Maggie Miller said she agrees with Smith’s previous point that punishing kids by removing them from sports teams takes them away from safe environments and leaves them vulnerable to going out at getting more devices. She raised the question of how effective punishing kids for an entire sports season would be.
School Board member Bob Metcalf pointed out that School Board bylaws provide for the appointment of a district wide school community advisory committee. This would help with community involvement and bring more attention and help to the issue, Metcalf said.
Miller asked Burgess if there were sensors in the elementary school. Burgess said, yes, they were installed this summer. In September there were two alerts but that was likely from the testing of the system. As of now vaping has not shown up as an issue in the elementary school.
The panels agreed that the installation of the sensors in the high school haven’t solved the problem, students have just gotten more creative with ways to hide their vaping devices.
Burgess said the vapes come in many colors and fruity sweet flavors, making them very enticing to the kids. “It’s like sucking in candy flavored smoke. And it’s so much easier. I think it’s so much more attractive to kids, as opposed to smoking cigarettes,” Burgess said.
Henderson asked where the vapes were sold in Nome. Smith said at the dispensaries, but kids are also able to get them online. Burgess and Smith also said they know some of the people who will sell to the underage students and have reported those names to both the police and dispensaries.
Councilmember Mark Johnson said the two hospitalizations that occurred are a lot for the size of the student body and it was very alarming to him.
School Board President Darlene Trigg, speaking from personal experience with tobacco use as a youth, said what prevented her most from getting cigarettes was a significant increase in the tax.
Nome’s city attorney Sam Severin was on the phone for the meeting. Severin said it was within the city’s powers to raise the age of tobacco purchasing from 19 to 21. The city also can tax nicotine and THC products. There is also a way for the city to place a ban on the flavored nicotine devices.
The boards discussed if the only places the nicotine devices could be purchased was the dispensaries and one must be 21 or older to enter them it may not make a difference to raise the age.
Severin said he knows of cities like Anchorage that have raised the age of purchasing and he will look further into if that helped decrease nicotine usage among youth.
The discussion turned to the dispensaries. City Manager Glenn Steckman said the City could do something similar to what they had done when they approached the liquor stores with the problem of alcohol abuse in town and the stores self-imposed limits, reduced hours of liquor sales and created no-sell lists.
“I’d like to see the three shops work together, because if they’re working together, it should curtail some vaping devices or marijuana getting down into the younger age bracket,” Steckman said.
Nome Mayor John Handeland asked what should be asked of the dispensaries. Henderson said they should be asked what they’re willing to do, whether be banning the sale of flavored vapes or stop selling the vapes all together.
The discussion of online ordering continued, and the boards agreed they wouldn’t be able to control vapes entering through the mail, but it is the responsibility of the community to control sales within Nome.