Huntley Middle School in DeKalb pilots vape detectors to curb underage vape use

DeKalb School District 428 has plan to crack down on underage vape use. But will it deter first-time and repeat offenses?

School District 428, Huntley Middle School sign

DeKALB – Huntley Middle School in DeKalb has been piloting the use of vape detectors throughout all student restrooms in its building. Officials have called the program a success so far, as DeKalb School District 428 looks to be more proactive about cracking down on underage vape use among students.

It is all part of an effort to help promote and protect the health, wellness and safety of students amid the prevalence of underage tobacco product use. It is illegal in Illinois to use vape products or e-cigarettes under the age of 21. More than 2.1 million youth in America use e-cigarettes, according to a 2023 national survey published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We definitely are concerned about the health and wellbeing of our students,” Huntley Middle School principal Treveda Shah said. “Looking at national news, we know that that’s what’s trending in our middle and high school students. So we want to make sure that we’re keeping our students safe.”

The FDA’s 2023 findings show a decline in high school-aged students using e-ciagrettes compared to 2022, however. More than one in four of the 2.1 million youth who said they use e-cigarettes do so daily, according to the FDA’s findings.

Vape detectors were first installed in all the student restrooms throughout Huntley Middle School in November 2023.

Upon sensing vapor, alerts are sent to staff to monitor students in real time.

If a student is caught vaping in the restrooms and it’s a first offense, students have to use an alternate, single-stall restroom for a predetermined length of time. Because discipline is progressive, each occurrence is viewed on a case-by-case basis and parents are notified in every situation.

School Bus at Huntley Middle School in DeKalb, IL on Thursday, May 13, 2021.

According to data provided by the district, the building saw two of its highest reported number of alerts on Dec. 10, 2023 and Dec. 13, 2023. A recorded decrease followed when the district sent a letter home to parents detailing how some parents were caught vaping in restrooms during after school events.

Shah said the vape detectors are not hidden, they are in plain sight.

“[Students] know they’re there,” Shah said. “Parents know they’re there. Parent letter went out. Everyone knows that they’re there. … Their [students’] frontal lobe is not fully developed, and they think that they can get away stuff.”

Dr. Blair Wright, a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Sandwich, said that keeping lines of communication open is key to working with kids.

“It’s important for parents and teachers to know that kids are doing this, whether they’re talking to us about it or not,” Wright said. “It would be good to be really open and up front with our kids and talk, like ‘Hey, there are people in your peer groups that might be vaping or might start vaping. Is this something you’ve seen at school? Is this something that your friends have talked about?’ Just kind of open the conversation with their teens and even pre-teens at this age to talk about it pretty openly, so that if kids do start experimenting with that, they feel more comfortable going to their trusted adults and keeping that dialogue open.”

It remains unclear what, if any, health consequences vape presents to those who start vaping as teens.

“It’s not super well studied,” Wright said. “That’s part of the fear. We don’t know exactly what’s going to be found over time with it. It is a pretty novel thing. So we don’t know what the long-term effects will be for kids who start vaping as teenagers.”

Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and can negatively impact adolescent and youth brain development, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some might be marked as having no nicotine in them, though have retroactively been found to contain nicotine, according to the CDC. Flavoring for e-cigarettes have been linked to serious lung disease, the CDC reports, and the aerosol from a vape pen can include cancer-causing chemicals.

Among some of the initiatives, the district is touting as it seeks to make inroads in curbing underage vaping is its partnerships with Menta Academy and Family Service Agency, Shah said.

“We have conversations with parents,” Shah said. “We definitely make sure that school-to-family … bridge is intact, but also with sending them to Menta or Family Service Agency would be to help them with their education, so that we’re not suspending them and they get that education piece of ‘You’re consistently being caught vaping. Let me send you to this program.’ Maybe you have a problem, maybe you don’t. But we want to, again, get in front of that.”

In her remarks at a recent school board meeting, DeKalb Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said she’s already begun talks about the possibility of installing vape detectors at DeKalb High School.

“More indication to come later,” Garcia-Sanchez said. “I just want to make sure that we’re ready to be advocates for that.”

The vape detectors installed at Huntley Middle School cost the district $12,402 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III funds, officials said.

When asked if vape detectors have a demonstrated full-proof ability to sense and deter first-time and repeat offenses, Shah said the detectors are meant to help awareness, too.

“We want to make sure we’re staying on the education side of it,” Shah said. “[We’re] not trying to trick them. It’s not anything fool proof. We want to stay in front of what’s happening, so that the safety of our students is at the forefront of everything that we do.”

But at the same time, Shah said she is optimistic about the prospect of the district expanding the vape detector program’s reach to another school.

“What we’re doing here at Huntley Middle School is kind of three-fold,” Shah said. “One, health concerns. Again, we know this is trending across the nation, not just at Huntley Middle School. Because we know that it’s happening, we want to be in front it, especially with health concerns. Vaping hasn’t been around for 25, 30 years. There’s still some studies going on. So we want to make sure our students are safe. … Compliance and policies with the district, student are not supposed to be vaping, smoking, doing any of those types of things here on any school grounds. So we want to stay in front of that. We also want to be able to educate our students about their selves, their health, their wellbeing and what they could possibly look for as far as long-term issues.”

Wright doesn’t discredit the merits of vape detectors, but said it’s too early to give them credence.

“The evidence is still out on whether that will lead to a decrease in vaping or not,” Wright said. “I think it’s important to try new solutions. So, the vape detectors are one of those, especially since kids are hiding use and kids are reporting that they’re doing it at school. I think that is one good step to take to identifying who is vaping and help them get the help that they need. Jury is still out on whether that’ll have long-term beneficial effects or not. But it’s worth trying something.”

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