How St. Charles police, schools are tackling underage vaping

An image of more than 100 dab and vape pens, cartridges, e-liquids and other related products represents a "snapshot" of the items that have been confiscated from St. Charles Unit District 303 students, Deputy Police Chief Chuck Pierce said.

And that's just in one school during about a semester.

The use of e-cigarettes among teens is a growing epidemic in communities nationwide, and St. Charles is no exception, Pierce said during a joint meeting of the city council and school board Monday. Police and district officials have been working to implement prevention and enforcement procedures in hopes of keeping vaping products out of the hands of underage students.

"It does take a full community to tackle the topic of substances," school board President Carolyn Waibel said. "Our goal in collaboration is to continue to decrease the use during school, after-school events and in the community at large."

Students caught with vaping tools face consequences from the school and law enforcement, said Pierce, who noted a ticket was issued for each of the dozens of confiscated items shown in the photo. School resource officers and administrators intervene in every case, as do school counselors.

In about 99% of those situations, he said, the students involved are one-time offenders.

"It's not just punitive," Pierce said. "It's a restorative process, also."

In an attempt to address the problem proactively, he said, police complete routine compliance checks of local establishments, and they follow up on every parent call and any complaint submitted through a tip line.

Mayor Ray Rogina, the city's liquor and tobacco commissioner, said St. Charles has shut down businesses found guilty of violating underage tobacco laws in the past.

"Here at the city, we're not going to mess around," he said. "We're going to crack down hard of any and all licensees who dare to sell to a minor."

But officials said they know there are plenty of other ways teens can get their hands on vaping items, including the internet. The photo of products taken away from students was "sobering" to Alderman Rita Payleitner, who questioned what more the city can do to combat the issue.

Pierce said a key piece that seems to be lacking is awareness among parents and even teens. Some may think vaping is harmless, he said, while others are unsure of what to look for or how to report it.

"I think a lot of parents are unknowing about it," he said. "It really does come down to, as far as I'm concerned, factual education."

Pierce pointed to one student who told a school resource officer, "If (an older peer or mentor) told me vaping was bad, I would've listened." Not long after that conversation, the district sent two high-schoolers to visit the middle schools and warn kids of the dangers of vaping.

"(We're) always trying not just to do the classic enforcement and education," he said, "but also trying to do the out-of-the-box listening to not only the adults out there but also the kids we interact with."

Though vaping may be the latest trend, Waibel said, the underage use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other substances is not a new problem for city and school officials. Tackling those issues requires a holistic approach and community engagement at multiple levels, she said.

"I think everything can be an improved process," she said. "So as we continue on, we'll learn more about vaping, for instance, and how we can continue to help the kids."

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