LHISD addresses dangers of vaping

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Suspicions have hung over the use of vapes and e-cigarettes like a misty cloud of suspect chemicals for more than a decade, but recent announcements from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have heightened concerns and led to a greater call to action for investigation and regulation of the devices.

As of mid-September, the CDC had documented 805 lung injury cases across 46 states, and confirmed 15 deaths in 11 states related to vaping.

The risks exist for all users, but is especially heightened for teen users, and that’s something Liberty Hill ISD hopes to curb.

“To me it’s just dangerous and it’s so popular, so it’s scary,” said Superintendent Steve Snell. “We went from commercials advertising how great it was to news stories advertising how dangerous it is. People can argue whether vaping caused it or vaping impacted other health problems, but to me it doesn’t matter, they’re dangerous.”

That growing concern, coupled with a nudge from a parent led to the upcoming presentation and community discussion on vaping at Liberty Hill High School Oct. 9. The event is from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center.

“This summer I got motivated, I got challenged by a parent to help them, and work together as a community to get vaping out of our schools,” Snell said. “I got fired up about it and this seems like the right time.”

The challenge to Snell was to make sure Liberty Hill ISD was the best district in every way.

“We’re the best district. We excel academically, we excel athletically, why can’t we be the district that eliminates vaping?” he said. “I think if we can have a unified message of this is not healthy, it’s not cool, and we’re not going to do that in Liberty Hill, I think we can get a lot farther than not having a plan.”

The school district has partnered with the CATCH My Breath E-Cigarette and Juul Prevention Program for the Oct. 9 event, bringing not only a speaker to discuss the details and dangers of vaping, but also a curriculum local schools can use for prevention.

“CATCH My Breath caught our attention, and doing some research on that we saw they’d gone to other school districts,” Snell said. “We felt that CATCH My Breath, and the local resources that come along with it, had more to offer Liberty Hill.”

The event will cover the consequences of vaping, both legally and health-wise, as well as statistics and trends, prevention methods and resources for future assistance.

“I think this is just an answer to the issue that everybody knows is a problem but nobody is really talking about it on a large scale, so I’m inviting the community in to have a conversation about it,” Snell said. “To me it’s important for parents of adolescents and young teenagers to get in the room and hear the conversations so they can keep their kid from ever starting.”

And as with most challenges facing teens, this is not one that can be solved by parents or schools alone.

“We’re all in it together, but at the end of the day teachers, administrators and superintendents, we’re all parents, too,” Snell said. “We want kids to make those healthy choices so the more we can educate, the more we can talk about it, the more kids can talk to each other, I think the more difference we can make. The message to parents is always to pay attention and talk to your kids. Make sure they’re making good choices.”

It is also not an issue Snell was ready to write off as one that the school district couldn’t impact.

“To me, it’s about do you want to be the school administration that preached to kids to say no, or do you want to be the administration that looks the other way and says ‘well, whatever, they’re going to do it anyway’?” he said. “We’ll do everything we can and we need the community’s help and that’s why I want parents there.”

When the issue is discussed at school, then at home, and becomes one among students themselves, Snell believes the message can be most effective.

“Education plays a huge part, but peer pressure is much more powerful than any message I’ll have or any message any other adults have,” he said. “The more kids you can get on board the better, but I think conversations are powerful when they happen in the house between parents and kids.”

When vaping began to gain attention, it was seen as a preferred alternative to cigarettes, and in its infancy, few people questioned the potential health impacts of the new option. And as the industry has grown, it has expanded well beyond the focus of helping smokers quit.

“Vaping comes along and it’s billed as a replacement for people who already smoke as a safe alternative to help you get off cigarettes,” Snell said. “But people don’t know what it is. To me it’s a positive thing if people stop smoking tobacco, but it’s a negative thing when people who have never smoked hear about vaping and realize it can be cotton-candy flavored, they can get a buzz and it’s easy to conceal and cheap.”

The message in Liberty Hill is not all doom and gloom when it comes to vaping, as district administrators recognize it is an issue, but no signs point to it being an epidemic problem today.

Liberty Hill High School Principal Jonathan Bever said teachers and staff are ever-vigilant when it comes to watching for vaping activity, but the intent goes well beyond discipline.

“We really want to help them, so it’s more about supporting them and helping them,” Bever said. “Telling a student no isn’t enough, but educating them and telling them the risks and consequences makes a difference.”

Avoiding judgment is critical in being able to address the issue in a proactive, productive manner.

“In my conversation with high school kids it’s not about judgment, it’s not about saying you’re bad because you do this,” Snell said. “Tobacco has been a part of world cultures for centuries. You think of cigarettes in America and they were about as mainstream as it got until people started getting sick and dying of cancer. Then there was a big-time anti-tobacco push to the point where teen smoking is at an all-time low.”

Both Snell and Bever admit that it is a challenge to keep up with the trends as vaping evolves.

“That’s when relationships with youth and open conversations with our students help,” Snell said. “They’re the ones that will tell us what’s popular and what people are doing, where to do it, how to do it, where they’re hiding it and where they get it.”

Snell has met with student leaders on campus and came away with a sense that vaping is not the cool trend in Liberty Hill to the same degree it might be other places.

“In talking to our high school leaders last week they say usage is down and they pinpointed reasons,” Snell said. “Reason number one is the law changed, you have to be 21 to buy it, so it’s harder to get. Reason number two is it is losing popularity and coolness so it is not as cool as it used to be. The newness has worn off.”

Still, Snell doesn’t believe that vaping will just go away on its own, and even the stark reality of recent deadly health impacts won’t reach every student faced with the choice to vape or not, and teens often feel like the negatives will never effect them.

“The younger you are, the more invincible you are,” Snell said. “That’s the mentality. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not going to hurt me, there’s going to be nothing wrong with me.”

Once vaping becomes an addiction to nicotine, the decision to quit is more difficult to make and stick to.

“Nicotine is very addictive, that’s a proven fact,” Snell said. “So once you get on the Juuls or the vaping and you get addicted, how do you get off? Then it becomes a whole new conversation and challenge? To me it’s all about making smart choices with awareness to where you don’t go from this to this, you have to find a plan with your family to get off this completely.”

The discussion of the health risks and addiction risks can be a great primer for deciding to quit, but the school district hopes to make other resources available to make that decision stick.

“For high school kids who may already be experimenting with it or even hooked on it, it’s an important conversation to talk to parents about how to address it, how to get your kid help and what to do moving forward.”

In Snell’s discussion with students he was asked about resources for kids who may already be addicted, perhaps a class or support group that would help them stick with the decision to give it up.

“To me it’s all about helping our students make healthy choices,” Snell said. “We have health classes, and we talk about eating right and exercise, don’t do drugs and don’t drink, but here comes one more thing you can’t do. Unfortunately, kids hear the message from us ‘don’t do any of this’ but at the end of the day, we’re trying to help them make good choices.”

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