When I see teenagers and preteens struggling with academic subjects, personal relationships, or an issue at home that might be interfering with the ability to learn, I feel like I have something positive to contribute or at the very least, the ability to lend an ear and listen. After all, I’ve been a teacher, coach, administrator, student, athlete, son of a guidance counselor and an English teacher, member of the U.S. Navy, parent, step-parent, spouse, and grandparent. I have some life experiences, in other words, like we all do, to draw from in trying to assist. Again, like most of us, I’ve seen great things and I’ve seen tragedy.
I’ve seen drugs in schools. Cigarettes. Alcohol. Chewing tobacco. Snuff. Marijuana. OxyContin and other opioids. Lots of controlled substances, unfortunately. Enter the vape.
Vaping is a new beast. Unless you’re watching from beginning to end, you may miss it, its use. And what is it, exactly? Inside the vapor there can be nicotine, THC from marijuana, or additives like fentanyl, but the slick flavors and the cover up hide the contents from user and observer alike. Unlike the list above, it does not reveal itself quite so easily. It does not emit a lasting smell or give off a pungent scent that sticks to clothes and hair and lockers and bags. It does not wad up in the cheek or radically change the physical appearance of its user while the user is “on it” and there is not a small clique who wear black and dangle chains and vent hate speech when greeted with a good morning, how’s it going. No. Vaping is insidious. And oh, so popular. Vaping is cool, hip, and easy to “hit it” as the terminology decrees. Vaping looks like a flash drive, pair of ear buds, or iPad charger. Kids vape and then hide their mouth and exhale into their shirt, hoodie, or a folded up bandana. Go to a search engine on the Internet and type in “vaping in class” or “hide your vape” and be prepared—you will see and hear a new wave of behavior that is at once audaciously rebellious and medically concerning. Unfortunately, something touted as a “safe alternative to smoking,” – and maybe that was even the intention? – has morphed into something monstrous, evolving and dangerous. Kids and adults are dying from vaping, contracting respiratory issues, and senselessly creating damage to themselves in order to inject poisons into their bodies and be all that.
Pine River Area Schools, like other area community schools, has a policy against vaping as part of our student handbooks and athletic code. While most parents and adults in general are in agreement that vaping should not be allowed in school, once caught our students and many of our parents come to us with anger or disbelief. “It’s just vapor,” they will say. “You cannot prove there’s anything in there.” They are right about that even as we feel their angst with us for bothering to inform them. We are not a crime lab and we cannot afford to contract with a crime lab. Our role is to teach and inspire students to realize a college or career after they graduate from high school. We are here to help, not hinder. But when you vape there are consequences. When we enforce rules, someone is always mad. Our role is education, not law enforcement. But, lines cross, like a Venn Diagram, and schools are put in the middle of this substance abuse issue, because it is just that, an abuse issue. Like a lot of abuse issues, the abuser doesn’t usually want help, just to be left alone. However, we can’t just ignore a thing because it is gaining popularity. We cannot allow kids to drink vodka in school or smoke marijuana. We cannot teach when students are high or committed to escaping the mundane by putting things into their bodies during school hours. Part of our responsibility goes beyond math and reading, it goes to helping young people becoming responsible adults and citizens, and informing them about what is, and what is not good for their health.
Of course, when we find a student in a locker room vaping or discover a vaping system in a gym bag, emotion erases logic like a cloudburst on chalk dust. Students say, “Everyone does it, it’s no big deal,”. We inform the parent. Many times the parents come in, support the school, and are disappointed in their child. Take the opportunity to educate, we implore. Together, we attempt to enlighten and inform, this is not candy. It’s hard to quit we’re told. We’ll help, we say and we line up counseling when asked. Unfortunately, sometimes, things don’t go so smoothly. “Well, you busted my kid,” a parent might say, “but you didn’t get this other kid. You’re not being consistent.” This sadly, is a song I have heard before and it at once gets my attention and saddens me. Why, I ask myself, are you less concerned about your child putting harmful substances into his body, than you are about whether or not another adolescent got away with it or didn’t get caught. We certainly don’t “catch” them all, we can only respond to the information we have. We don’t catch them all just like not everyone who speeds on the highway gets pulled over by a trooper and gets a speeding ticket. We can only enforce a rule or a policy when it comes to our attention. And like law enforcement, we don’t issue to tickets to folks because we are told someone drove by earlier speeding.
The simple truth to vaping in school, or away from school (like a parking lot at the grocery store)—and the abuse of other substances listed above—is that the only way we can stop it is if all of us, with our eyes wide open, actually stand together and say, “no” instead of, “I didn’t see anything,” or “What about those other kids? I guess it’s what’s your last name that matters, huh?” Raising kids as a village, as the saying goes, is easier said than done, I know. We’ll all grab a toddler by the shirt to stop him from getting hit by a car backing up, but when a thirteen year-old hits a vape pipe outside a grocery store in July while we are traveling on vacation, do we have the audacity inside of us to do the right thing and speak up to that young person? Ah, ethics. It’s a tough thing. Academically, that’s a subject I can handle. Most of us can handle the book work part, but the action? Saying no? But what if we call said no when it mattered? Wouldn’t that be something?
Schools are not at fault for vaping any more than the highway is at fault for speeding or reckless driving. We do our best as teachers and leaders to be fair and for kids to learn from their mistakes so they can change their futures. Fair of course, like consistency, is subjective. Fairness and consistency only work in the school system when we all trust each other, even when, gulp, it’s our kid in the office for carrying a vape pipe or “hitting it” in the locker room with his friends.
I know if all the adults work together, we can move a lot of self-made mountains, knock down a lot of hurdles, and clear the path for a whole lot more teaching and learning.
Superintendent - Mr. Matt Lukshaitis
Pine River Area Schools will foster a safe and challenging educational environment where students can become independent, responsible, and productive citizens in a changing society.
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