Combating vaping in schools: How Huntley District 158 is using detectors, cameras and software

School district officials note they can’t catch all instances of vaping on school grounds

Parents and teachers discuss vaping at Conley Elementary School in Algonquin March 6, 2024.

Huntley School District 158 officials are trying to combat vaping in schools, but they admit it can be a challenging matter to stay in front of. They are, however, using multiple tools to address the troubling trend, which dominated discussion a Parent Teacher Advisory Committee meeting this week.

The district’s two middle schools, Heineman in Algonquin and Marlowe in Lake in the Hills, have installed vaping detectors in the bathrooms, although the technology has not been glitch-free. The sensors have needed to be fine-tuned over time because of instances such as dust setting them off. Other technologies are in use at Huntley High School, where cameras are stationed outside bathrooms to track students going in and out.

“Do we think we’re catching all of them? Probably not,” Superintendent Jessica Lombard said.

A McHenry vaping store warned in 2020 that only people 18 and older only could enter. You must be 21 to purchase vapes in Illinois, but officials acknowledge it's a trend among teens.

When the vape sensors were installed at Heineman last fall, an FAQ on the school website about the sensors noted the district would see how effective they were before deciding whether to install them at the high school. Huntley High Principal Marcus Belin said the school has 18 bathrooms; a district spokesperson later clarified there are two additional gender neutral bathrooms.

In addition to cameras, Huntley High “campus supervisors” take photos of paraphernalia found in bathrooms, according to a presentation at the Parent Teacher Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday. District 158 also uses a software tool called Minga, which bills itself as a “campus management system” according to its website. Minga has the ability for schools to track things such as hall passes, officials said. Officials asked parents for feedback on vaping and encouraged them to help with solutions. “We’re in the fishbowl,” Belin said.

School district officials outlined some of the challenges they encounter when trying to discourage vaping, including the size and ease of hiding devices. Officials said, however, they have resources such as substance abuse counseling available to students seeking to break nicotine or other addictions. The school board approved a two-year contract with Partners for Prevention for substance abuse counseling in January, at a cost of a little more than $85,250 annually, according to district documents.

A vape detector in a boys restroom Tuesday, March 5, 2024, at Huntley Middle School in DeKalb. The school is piloting a vape detector program in hopes of curbing the use of vape products among youth in the community.

Officials asked parents in attendance about their perceptions of vaping. Parents gave a variety of answers, like how it’s marketed as harmless and that teens vape for attention. Some vapes contain THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. School board President Andy Bittman touched on drug use at schools, saying it was not a “victimless crime” and affects others. “If you’re stoned in class, you’re not learning,” Bittman said.

This story has been updated to correct the number of bathrooms at Huntley High School.