As electronic cigarettes continue to erase many of the taboos surrounding tobacco smoking, Ridgefield High School students are getting caught with them in at school more and more.

The high school reported that 24 students were involved in vaping incidents during the 2017-18 school year — an increase from the 15 reports of vaping during the previous school year.

Two dozen infractions reported in a school of 1,700 students might seem low but considering how discreet vapes can be used — specifically, the commonly-used electronic cigarette brand Juul — it has raised the attention of the school’s administration.

“Similar to other schools, we struggle with the fact that vaping can escape detection because of the size and style of vapes, as well as due to the fact that vapor, unlike smoke, dissipates almost immediately,” said Dr. Stacey Gross, principal of Ridgefield High School.

A Juul vape is virtually indistinguishable from the USB drives students might use to store photos or schoolwork.

In contrast to the rise in vaping, there were no incidents involving tobacco — such as cigarettes or chewing tobacco — reported by the school in 2017-18.

“We haven’t seen any tobacco here in years,” Gross said.

She believes students are generally well aware of the risks of smoking, but that they may not be as informed about the health risks carried by vaping.

From zero to 24

While the numbers of students caught vaping is small compared to the school body, it also appears to be going up.

The schools reported one tobacco incident in the 2013-14 school year. There were no vaping incidents that year

During the 2014-15 school year, just two vaping incidents were reported by school administration. The number incidents remained flat in 2015-16 with another two vaping incidents reported. Then came an increase from 2 to 15 vaping infractions in 2016-17, followed by the 24 that were reported last year.

According to the school’s student handbook, students caught using or in possession of a vape are subject to the same disciplinary actions as students who are caught smoking. A first-time offense brings with it five days of in-school detention. Students caught multiple times face one to five days of in-school suspension for subsequent offenses.

The handbook also states that each incident will be referred to the police for an infraction ticket.

Tip of the iceberg

Gross said that while she could not comment on vaping at the middle schools, she knew some students had experience with vapes prior to entering the high school.

Asked whether the problem appears to be larger than the small number of students caught vaping at the high school, she suggested the number of kids who vape in Ridgefield might be larger.

“I would assume, based on everything I read or see, I would probably say that there’s a larger extent of usage,” she said. “I don’t think it’s happening all the time.”

According to the state’s Department of Health, “14.7% of high school students” — one in seven — said they currently use electronic nicotine delivery systems, (ENDS).

But current and former students at the high school suggested that the number of students who vape is likely much higher.

One former student who graduated in 2018, but asked to remain anonymous, said the number is likely closer to one-in-five students at Ridgefield High School.

RHS senior Dackerie Bowes told The Press that she felt 24 students was “absolutely” lower than the number of students who vape.

“It think it’s definitely a social thing,” she said. “I don’t think it’s cool to Juul at home.” She knows of some kids who go through a box of four Juul pods in a week — each pod contains about as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

Boys and girls

Bowes said she believes vaping nicotine is more common among girls than boys, but that boys are more likely to use a “dab-pen” — a vape loaded with marijuana oil.

“Boys are not scared to bring their marijuana products into school, girls will walk around with their Juul in their waistband,” she said.

She also sees a difference in how boys are punished versus girls.

When the school catches girls with a vape, school officials “will take their Juul away, but the boys get dragged into the office right away,” she said.

Asked about how the devices are marketed to teenage girls, she said that many girls will cover their Juuls to personalize them — she’s seen covers with everything from “pineapples” to “rose gold.”  

School rules

School officials are aware of the problem.

“We certainly try to vigilant about this,” Gross told The Press.

Students who want to quit vaping are offered clinics at RHS through St. Vincent’s Medical Center. Students are excused from class to attend the clinics.

“That’s available to all students who need it,” said Gross. “We think it’s that important that we’ll excuse students from classes to participate,” she added.

The school has also hired an additional supervisory paraprofessional to “help oversee safety and security in the building.”

While the school has not put signs up in student bathrooms warning about the health risks of vaping — a suggestion made by Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in September — a PSA on vaping does play on the television screens throughout the building, according to Gross. The PSA was created by students for a health class assignment.

Feds crackdown

Student vaping is an issue not limited to Ridgefield — or the state of Connecticut. Vaping rates among teens have reached an “epidemic proportion of growth,” said FDA Commissioner Gottlieb in a statement last month.

The FDA has begun cracking down on retailers who sell the devices, or “e-liquid” juice or pods to minors. The agency sent letters to five major manufacturers of vape products — including Juul, Vuse, MarkTen, blu e-cigs, and Logic — last month, requesting that the companies come up with solutions to “convincingly address the widespread use of their products by minors.”

The five companies comprise about 97% of the total market for vapes, according to the FDA.

Also in September, the FDA sent out fines and warning letters to more than 1,300 retailers of vapes after a wide spread sting operation.

One retailer in Ridgefield — the Mobil gas station on Danbury Road — was issued a fine during an earlier sting in April, after minors working undercover for the FDA were able to purchase e-liquids on two separate occasions.

“We take it seriously,” said Todd Schoenherr, one of the Mobil’s co-owners, and a Ridgefield resident. “We do our best to deny any sale to minors, but obviously a mistake happened.”