Catch me if you can: High school installs vape detectors

Vape detectors — like the one pictured above in a girls bathroom — have been installed at Ridgefield High School.

With electronic devices capable of rendering tobacco smoke scentless and gaining popularity with experimenting youth, Ridgefield educators have deployed their own technological artillery to combat students vaping at the high school.

Fourteen electronic vaping detectors were installed at Ridgefield High School in February with the goal of catching students in the act of using e-cigarettes containing nicotine. Some detectors have been placed in bathrooms — the most popular and private vaping destination for students during school hours, while other sensors have been implemented in other parts of the building.

Vaping has become a trend at the high school over the last three years. Administrators reported 24 students were caught using or were in possession of a vape during the 2017-18 school year. There were 15 incidents reported the previous year. 

“There’s been a lot of talk of vaping, and what are we doing about it,” Superintendent Dr. William Collins said at the Board of Education’s meeting March 11.

In a joint statement, Collins and Ridgefield High School Principal Dr. Stacey Gross said each of the sensors cost $995, along with a $495 software setup fee. 

Citing safety and security reasons, Gross declined to name the make and model of the vaping detectors installed at the high school. Based on an image provided to The Press from a high school senior, the installed sensor appeared to be a model made by Soter Technologies out of Happauge, N.Y.

Derek Peterson, Soter’s founder and CEO, confirmed to The Press that his company had sold its products in Ridgefield.

The detectors send an electronic alert to school officials if one of their sensors is triggered — the list of staff members alerted is determined by the individual school, Peterson said. 

The vape detectors will also be triggered by other types of smoke, Peterson told The Press, but they cannot distinguish between vapes loaded with nicotine or THC oil rendered from marijuana. 

The detectors also contain a sensor that can detect elevated sound levels, meant to alert school staff to incidents of bullying. It does not contain a microphone. 

“Absolutely not,” Peterson told The Press. 

“You can’t put microphones or cameras in bathrooms,” he added, citing privacy concerns.

Juul

The battery-powered vaping devices produce a cloud of vapor typically containing nicotine and flavoring, which the user inhales the same way they would a traditional cigarette.

Because the liquid in the device is vaporized, rather than burned, the odor and tell-tale cloud of vapor rapidly dissipate, making it harder for teachers and staff to catch students in the act.

Juul, a brand of vapes that use a proprietary system of nicotine cartridges, has proven especially popular among teens. 

Some vapes can also be loaded with cartridges containing oil derived from marijuana, for users to surreptitiously get high without leaving behind a distinctive odor. 

Health concerns

Sale of vapes and other “electronic cigarettes,” including those made by Juul, is restricted to adults aged 18 and older in Connecticut, just like traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products. 

A bill currently before the General Assembly would raise the legal age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vape products, to 21.

Other bills would ban the sale of flavored “e-liquids” in the devices, and tax vape products similar to tobacco products. 

Ridgefield High School also provided students and parents links to Truth Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides free, anonymous advice on how to quit vaping via text. Students also learn about vaping through the school’s mandated health class, and the school also holds clinics to help teens quit.

Liz Jorgensen, director of Insight Counseling, a company based in Ridgefield that provides addiction and substance abuse counseling, said that anxiety in teens has been shown to be a contributing factor to nicotine addiction. 

“Teens tell me that about 40%-50% of Ridgefield high teens have vaped, maybe 25% are regular users,” Jorgensen told The Press.

Gross said there have been no reports of students meddling with the vaping detectors. She said her office has not received any complaints about privacy from students or parents.

“In fact, the vaping sensors do not impinge on anyone’s privacy and support safety and health goals for all of our students around a behavior that is clearly not allowed on school grounds,” said Gross.

A student who spoke to The Press seemed to echo Gross’s point.

“Kids aren’t really concerned about an invasion of privacy since the large majority are underage and therefore illegally vaping — it’s mostly just irritating to them,” said one RHS senior, who asked not to be identified by name.

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