Police, Judge encouraging students to stop vaping, make healthier choices


By Kristen Meriwether

E-cigarettes have become a common alternative to traditional cigarettes with many preferring the more discrete way to consume nicotine.

But students bringing e-cigarettes onto Liberty Hill campuses could find themselves in Justice of the Peace Court. All LHISD campuses are both drug and tobacco-free zones, meaning it’s against the law to bring it on campus, regardless of age.

The LHISD Police Department reported 16 instances of minors in possession from August 1 through Oct. 31, according to a Field Incident Report provided to the Board of Trustees at their November meeting. The instances could be for alcohol or tobacco, however, The Independent was unable to view the individual reports due to privacy laws.

The same report showed five cases of possession of drug paraphernalia and three possession of a controlled substance, penalty group two, which includes concentrated THC oil found in vape pens. Due to privacy laws the names of the students, location of the incidents, and detail of each incident were not provided.

For LHISD police officers, the goal is not to wrack up arrests or issue tickets. Instead, officials say they want to protect students and help them make healthier choices.

“We try to change the way the kids think and the way they act to make better decisions,” LHISD Chief of Police Sharif Mezayek told The Independent.

He said they refer students caught with e-cigarettes to a judge who can give the students a penalty or send them through a program to help curb the behavior.

“Getting these kids in programs that will open their eyes and guide them to make better decisions, that’s what we want,” Mezayek said. “We don’t want to ruin a kid’s life.”

Many of the first-time nicotine offenders end up in Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt’s court. The students face the judge with their parents and enter a plea.

“It is a very serious thing to walk into a courtroom. You realize that you’re in a place you’ve never been before. And it’s that way for a reason,” said Judge Staudt. “An offense of any kind can be detrimental to your life, to your career, etc. So we want them to know we take it seriously.”

For those who plead guilty, Judge Staudt can assess a punishment, but her options for teens are more than just jail, a fine or community service. She works to find out the underlying reasons for the bad choice and in many cases will get the teens into programs such as anger management, tobacco education, mentorship or teen court.

Staudt said the programs can help youth not only learn to make better choices, but stand up for the choices they know are right—even in the face of peer pressure.

“They need encouragement to stand up for what they believe,” Staudt said. “If they’re going to accept the fact that it is bad for you, it’s not something they want to ruin their life with, then how do we empower them to make the right choice?”

Staudt said the first part of that is to help students understand how unhealthy tobacco and drugs actually are.

“If it’s illegal, there’s a reason for it to be illegal. And it’s not because we don’t want you to have fun,” Staudt said. “There’s a reason there’s a warning label on all the cigarette packages these days. Tobacco is harmful to your health. That’s proven.”

E-cigarettes, which entered the market in 2007, were originally marketed as a “safer alternative” to smoking tobacco. E-cigarettes were sleek and cool looking, and were available in a variety of flavors. Social media influenced their popularity.

Since 2014, they have been the most commonly used tobacco product among youth, according to a fact sheet provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services. A January DSHS report showed that in 2020, 14.3% of Texas high school students and 7.1% of middle school students self-reported using e-cigarettes.

But as more research has been done, the negative effects of vaping are starting to show, especially among teens and young adults. The nicotine pods, which are equivalent to one pack of cigarettes, contain over 31 different chemicals, including formaldehyde.

The most common flavoring ingredient is diacetyl, a compound known to cause bronchiolitis obliterans, known as “popcorn lung,” according to DSHS. The disease scars the tiny air sacs in the lung, causing a thickening and narrowing of the airways, which can lead to wheezing and shortness of breath.

Prior to the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control began studying e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI). Often found in chronic users, the disease has sent thousands to the hospital since research began in 2019.

Much of the research was paused during the pandemic, but a January DSHS report showed 150 confirmed cases of EVALI in Texas with 130 classified as probably. Four deaths have been reported.

Without more intervention like that provided by LHISD PD and Judge Staudt, those numbers could continue to rise. Jennifer Steele, Associate Director of Tobacco Prevention and Enforcement at the Texas School Safety Center told The Independent that the pandemic has exacerbated vaping habits among youth.

“These kids are stressed out, they have more reason to vape and to need these products,” Steele said. “That kind of makes it even worse, or even more of a critical thing that we have to focus on.”