Area schools grapple with vaping as federal government considers e-cigarette ban

Ontario High School intends to work out a multi-tiered plan to address increased electronic cigarette use among students. Juul, pictured above, is a popular brand of electronic cigarette. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – Jodi Elizondo, the principal at Ontario High School, had on her desk a curious and harmless looking package resembling some kind of a tasty treat that might be sold in a candy store. 

The package, which is decorated with a doctored neon-colored Monopoly logo across the top and below a cheeky image of Betty Boop dispensing what appear to be colorful doughnuts, was confiscated from a student and supposedly contained THC oil vape cartridges.

THC is the active, high-inducing chemical in marijuana, and when converted into an oil, can be vaporized and inhaled through a vaping device, referred to as an electronic cigarette. 

As it turned out, the package on Elizondo’s desk were black market counterfeit products from California that go by the name “Monopoly Carts.”  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently warned consumers to avoid using counterfeit vape products following 450 cases of a mysterious lung disease that has taken the lives of at least seven people across the nation, including one in Oregon.  

Both nicotine and THC are vaporized in schools, and the Center for Disease Control has warned people to refrain from using any electronic cigarette or vaping device until the agency isolates what is causing the illness and deaths. 

In Washington, the Trump administration is preparing a ban on flavored electronic cigarettes. 

In Oregon, the Oregon Health Authority said in a statement reacting to the proposed federal ban that “e-cigarettes are the most popular tobacco products used among Oregon youth, with 21 percent of Oregon 11th graders reporting e-cigarette use in 2018. These products are available in thousands of flavors with kid-friendly names and candy-like packaging.”

The agency said it has identified two people with vaping-related lung illnesses, including the one person who died.

“OHA continues to work with CDC, FDA and local health departments to investigate the case,” the release said. 

Peter Rudy, public affairs specialist at the Oregon Department of Education said via email that the department has not provided any new guidance to schools regarding the current risks associated with vaping. 

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Back in Ontario, Betty Boop tantalizingly looks up from the package sitting on Elizondo’s desk. The flashy colors and familiar characters make it hard to believe that the contents could potentially be deadly. 

Vaping “is very hard to detect,” Elizondo said. “It’s a huge concern.” 

Elizondo said the high school is creating a new student council – Ontario High School Principal Advisory Council – to gather student opinions and information from their peers about issues such as vaping. 

“It is easy for adults to make assessments and make assumptions but when we go to the kids, to the source, we find out something different,” Elizondo said. 

The rationale behind commissioning students to help the staff better understand what goes on among the students is that they know directly what is happening among their peers.

“They see and experience many different things that we never know about. They will be instrumental in keeping our kids safe,” Elizondo said. 

“They are kids, so other kids listen to them,” Elizondo added. “Vaping will be their first assignment.” 

Good attendance, good behavior in addition to passing all of their classes is part of the criteria for a student to qualify to be on the council. The council is one method area schools are employing to address vaping in school.

On Aug. 19. Ontario High hosted a meeting for parents to start problem solving regarding vaping and the increased presence of marijuana at school. 

Tina Youngblood, an Ontario High School parent, shared the invitation to the meeting on Facebook, imploring parents to combat the issue, and said that about 50 parents attended.

“Like many schools, OHS is experiencing a drastic increase in marijuana and vaping use, particularly with the recent increased availability … how can we combat this?” The invitation said.  

Elizondo also said that she met with the juvenile department and Lifeways Behavioral Health to discuss what training they could provide the school and staff. 

Ontario senior Reese Youngblood, Tina Youngblood’s son, said that while he doesn’t vape, he has a lot of friends who do.

Youngblood said that he knows that students bring their Juuls, a popular brand of vape device, to school hidden in their sleeves, and the teachers and staff are none the wiser.

As far as he knows, most of what people are vaping at school is nicotine.  

“I can smell it in the halls a lot,” Youngblood said.

When it comes to vaping THC products, such as those that were once in the package on Elizondo’s desk, Youngblood said he believes most of them are “bootlegged” products coming from “street dealers.” 

Youngblood said that given the latest news about the dangers associated with vaping, three or four of his friends have already thrown away all of their vaping gear, opting to play it safe rather than risk getting sick or possibly dying.

He said school officials haven’t said anything to students about emerging risks of vaping.

Luke Cleaver, principal at Nyssa Middle School, said that while vaping does exist at his school, it is pretty limited with only one or two incidents reported so far. He added that the larger problem is the younger kids viewing the older kids vaping. He said high school students can be on the middle school campus where they can be seen vaping.

Cleaver said middle school students have alerted school employees when the older kids are vaping on campus. 

“Kids are aware of it, and they do a good job reporting it,” Cleaver said.  

Cleaver provided the stats on vaping from his school based on last year’s eighth grade class. The results are from the Oregon Healthy Teen Survey administered by the Oregon Health Authority. 

Cleaver said that 29% of the students, out of a group of 51 kids who volunteered to take the survey, reported seeing others, including adults, vaping during the school year, while 10% reported vaping themselves in the last 30 days. 

Cleaver said his students learn about the dangers of vaping in PE class. In the school’s English language arts and social studies departments, teachers bring up a variety of topics, including vaping, about which students read, write and discuss. 

Ontario Middle School principal Lisa Longoria said that so far vaping hasn’t been a huge problem at her school, and that she has only seen one or two incidents in the past couple of years. 

“I’m also not naïve to think that it is not happening,” Longoria said. 

Longoria added that in the past, vape pens have been confiscated, and it was determined that students were using them for nicotine. 

“We’re not always going to see everything that they are doing,” Longoria added. “As far as it being a problem at school. we haven’t seen it.”  

For Mary Jo Sharp, the principal at Vale High School, combatting vaping in school begins with good information and research. 

Sharp said that she believes that school faculty and parents are getting a lot of false information about vaping and that there isn’t enough research out there, and that it is important to educate parents about what their children are consuming.  

“We don’t have any idea what the students are vaping,” Sharp said. 

Sharp said that parents are typically surprised when their children are caught vaping, and she added that the school offers parents support.

On Wednesday, Oct. 2, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Vale High School will hold an event featuring an ex-police officer who goes by the moniker “Tall Cop.” Jermaine Galloway gives presentations on what parents should watch for that their children are doing.

Galloway will discuss topics such as clothing brands marketed to children that allow them to conceal contraband.  

Brett Jackman, Nyssa High School principal, said that he hasn’t had any issues with vaping this year, but that he does take it seriously. 

“I imagine we’ll have three or four incidents,” Jackman said. 

Students caught vaping will be suspended, Jackman said. 

Jackman said that the best way to deal with the situation is to communicate the dangers of vaping to both students and parents.

Jackman said that peer pressure is a major influence on whether a student tries vaping, and that it can be dangerous given that kids don’t really know what they are consuming most of the time. 

“It gets kind of scary when they are experimenting and have no clue,” Jackman added. 

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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