Suffolk schools update vaping policies amidst epidemic spreading on Long Island

Brandon Johnson, 17, smokes a Juul in front of North Babylon High School.

By Katherine Hoey and Erika Peters

Two more Suffolk County school districts are expected to join a new program by the end of February and early March alongside the county’s Department of Health to rethink how students are educated and reprimanded regarding vaping.

The “Vape Out” program, which includes community and parent education, “Teens-Teaching-Teens” leadership training, and an “Alternatives to Suspension” program, was rolled out in three schools in October, Bayport-Blue Point, Hampton Bays, and Port Jefferson, with North Babylon joining Jan. 30.

Six more districts are “on deck” for the program, John Martin, The Suffolk County Department of Health supervising public health educator, said. Amityville and Eastport-South Manor are estimated to join by the end of February and early March.

“I want to say about 80 percent of kids in my school vape,” Paul Yam, a senior at North Babylon High School said. “Kids are getting caught vaping every week.”

Last year 3.05 million high school students smoked an e-cigarette at least once in the last 30 days prior to the conduction of a National Youth Tobacco Survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marking a 78 percent increase in use from 2017. For middle school students, the number increased by 48 percent, the survey reported. The startling upsurge has caused a major reassessment in how both government and school districts handle the issue.

Traditionally, students caught using an e-cigarette on campus would face an out of school suspension of three to five days, but as the number of students vaping continues to rise, schools are seeking different methods of discipline.

“We have to be proactive and we have to educate kids and parents about the dangers of vaping,” Jonathan Klomp, principal of North Babylon High School, said.

Of the four districts, only North Babylon High School partook in the “alternatives to suspension” program, which allows students to attend a two-period long education session where they learn the health effects of vaping and nicotine use, refusal skill development, and identify addiction and withdrawal management resources in lieu of suspension, according to a press release from the department.

Martin, who helped create the program, said the department has received an influx of calls from districts seeking to join the program, which he hopes will eventually reach all 69 Suffolk districts.

A program that educates rather than punishes could prove more successful for students with an addiction, he said.

“We recognize that a student that is experimenting will, if caught and disciplined, self-correct and likely not repeat behavior,” Martin said. “However, a student addicted to nicotine will continue to use, just in a stealthier fashion.”

Officials at Sachem School District — which is not a part of the “Vape Out” program — recognized that stern disciplinary action was not deterring students from vaping.

“The number of vaping incidents was multiplying exponentially despite even more disciplinary action,” Dr. Anthony Mauro, the Sachem School District assistant superintendent for student support and administration, said. “Our disciplinary issues related to vaping have gone up over the last three or four years by four or five hundred percent.”

This fall, Sachem rolled out a voluntary in-school suspension option, where rather than serving an out-of-school suspension, students can sit in a room staffed with teachers as well as drug and alcohol counselors.

This alternative is meant to “make sure students don’t fall behind academically and most importantly that they’re not sitting home vaping,” Mauro said.

Suffolk County only has legislation prohibiting the sale of nicotine and related products to minors, which doesn’t include possession.

Many states are moving toward legislation similar to Ohio’s Revised Code, which prohibits children from possessing, using, or purchasing cigarettes, tobacco and alternative nicotine products. Violators have three options: pay a fine, attend a court mandated alternative to suspension program, or plead not true, according to Troy Hager, chief of police in Perry, Ohio.

“I think you have to have something over the child’s head to make them want to pick the better option,” Hager said.

But the threat of a fine may not be enough to curb vaping, Brandon Johnson, a senior at North Babylon High School, said.

“I’d take it more seriously, but it wouldn’t stop me,” Johnson said. “It would just make me more alert about the situation around me.”

About Katherine Hoey 1 Article
Junior in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. Creative, detail-oriented writer with a focus on social inequalities and investigative work with an interest in culture writing as well.