Do you know what’s in your student’s backpack? Their Starbucks cup or their pencil case? Have you smelled a fruity substance while driving? While many of these questions seem harmless, the answers could be shocking to some.
Many school bus operations have historically prohibited food and drink to be consumed by students during the ride, but another more nefarious consumable is creating fear amid transporters. A simple Google search of the phrase “youth vaping” returns headlines about the dangers to and the rapid increase in use by children. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated on its website that one out of every 13 of today’s children will die prematurely from a smoking-related illness.
Vaping is another term for an e-cigarette product and could contain liquid with nicotine, tobacco, even marijuana in some circumstances.
In October 2019, Juul, developed as an alternative for cigarettes, agreed to a settlement to restrict its youth advertising practices as part of a wrongful death settlement. A month later, National Public Radio stated that 28 percent of high schoolers, and 11 percent of middle schoolers vape. The figures were compared to those in 2016 where the percentages for both age groups were half as high.
The Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) began investigating vaping-related severe lung injuries in early August 2019. Up until March 13, the state reported 60 confirmed cases and six deaths. While the first highest age group was 18 to 29, ages 13 to 17 accounted for 16 of the most severe lung injuries.
The ISDH stated on its website that the use of e-cigarettes and vaping among youth has risen more than 350 percent among high school and middle students since 2012. To combat that, Gov. Eric Holcomb and State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box announced a plan to address youth vaping in the state, which includes providing education and training to students, teachers and parents.
Halting student vaping and e-cigarette use is something that Shirley Dubois is especially passionate about. She is the Howard County tobacco-free coordinator, which is a program of the Kokomo YMCA, located about 50 miles north of Indianapolis Dubois started giving presentations across the state on e-cigs and vaping in 2015. She lost her father and 64-year-old sister to lung cancer, and her 42-year-old sister also died from an asthma attack, which Dubois said partly resulted from secondhand smoke.
“I feel the big industry is still trying to market towards the youth, and get them hooked, and I just want to be a voice for those who can’t be a voice,” Dubois said.
One of her more recent presentations was to a group of school bus drivers at Kokomo School District last November. She said the drivers were astonished by the information they received.
She began the talk by asking some of the bus drivers a series of questions. She asked them if they even know what an e-cig looks like. Are they familiar with the terminology used by students who vape? She also showed them what many e-cig and vaping products look like.
The presentation went on to discuss the myths shared by tobacco manufacturers in an effort to make these products seem to be a safe alternative to cigarettes, adding that “safe doesn’t mean safer.” She reiterates that federal law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.
“I targeted two bus drivers, I said have you seen somebody use the Juul? Are you familiar that they don’t smell like traditional tobacco, second-hand, third-hand smoke, but they are usually flavored? So, I quizzed them on how much they knew, how much they had seen,” Dubois explained. “Are you familiar that now, the e-cig is in a watch form that looks like an apple watch, but it’s a little bit bigger? Are you familiar that the vaping pens can be at the end of a drawstring of a hoodie, of a sweatshirt with a hood?”
She said the group also discussed new products coming to market and how students can try to mask the smoke by exhaling into their coat, down their sleeves.
“It’s very, very secretive,” she added.
Dubois said there are a number of ways students are also hiding tobacco products when not in use. They tape e-cigs to the inside of Starbucks cups and inhale through the lid opening as if they were taking a drink. But instead, they are blowing the smoke back into the cup. She mentioned students could also be hiding pods, which contain the liquid of the e-cigarette, in glue sticks.
“My information was so alarming to [the bus drivers],” Dubois said. “Again, because some of those bus drivers are grandparents, it just brought an awareness that, oh my gosh, if I have a student or a child that is in one of the school systems, I need to be more aware.”
She noted that because a school bus driver’s main job is to watch the road, catching students in the act isn’t going to be easy. However, she said signs of e-cig use are seeing a cloud of smoke when looking in the rearview mirror or smelling something fruity. She explained that many times the smell of e-cigs could be confused with a student putting on lotion or perfume. Flavors such as maple syrup could be misconstrued as a student just eating pancakes at home for breakfast prior to boarding.
“I mean, it’s amazing,” she said. “There are so many flavors.”
A similar presentation took place in Hyannis, Massachusetts, for more than 250 school bus drivers. Sandy Gifford, transportation director for Barnstable Public Schools invited a county representative to speak with all drivers who work for Cape Cod Collaborative drivers, one of the district’s transportation contractors.
The district’s lead nurse put together a vaping presentation for in-house and Five Star contracted drivers.
“Our high school has done much work on this, which included the school and the expectations that continued policy exists on the school buses of no smoking, which includes vaping,” Gifford said. “It has been rampant everywhere and hard to detect at times. Even with cameras on our buses, we don’t always see or catch it.”
In a School Transportation News reader survey sent in April to transportation directors and supervisors, many of which shared that their interior cameras catch instances of students vaping and smoking on the school bus.
What Happens When a School Bus Driver Notices Vaping?
What happens to students caught vaping on the school bus depends on local school district policy. In a web poll School Transportation News conducted in January, 80 percent of 176 respondents said their district has a policy regarding vaping on the school bus.
Dubois said she worked with Howard County and the state of Indiana to prohibit the use of all tobacco products on school property. She said, therefore, school bus drivers who do observe a student using an e-cigarette would have to follow whatever the policy is outlined for them by the district.
However, she noted that Indiana e-cig prohibitions also extend to school bus drivers themselves. After a bus driver drops students off at an athletic event or field trip, they can’t use any tobacco products while on the bus.
Other states are also taking proactive measures to combat vaping by youth. The Ohio Board of Education recently adopted changes in its transportation policy regarding students who ride the school bus. The update was passed after several reports of students falling ill after vaping or inhaling the fumes on the school bus. The policy change went into effect for the 2019-2020 school year. O.A.C. 3301-83-08 now expands the tobacco ban to include all other nicotine products.
Douglas County School District in Colorado is currently piloting a diversion program at one of its middle schools to suspend students caught vaping. The students would also have to take classes on substance abuse, with the hope that they will learn to better manage stress, and to complete community service.
A district spokesperson said the program has not yet been expanded to transportation.
However, several other high schools in Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio have taken action regarding vaping by installing sensors in bathrooms and throughout hallways, according to WCNC. The sensors cost about $1,000 each and are made to detect chemicals in smoke from e-cigarettes.
Vaping & the New Novel Coronavirus
While Dubois said no one knows what the future holds, it’s too soon to tell if there was an increase or decrease in student vaping amid COVID-19. She noted that in Howard County, she has heard anecdotally that rates of youth vaping were on the decline, perhaps due to stay-at-home orders. She pointed out the students often have the most access to e-cigarettes during school hours.
She added that when schools reopen, she is unsure if vaping will be as prominent if students are required to wear masks on the school bus. Physical distancing on the bus could also play a role, as they won’t be able to easily pass the devices around.