How schools are using online education, rather than punishment, to curb vaping

Punishing kids for bad behavior often doesn't correct the problem.

A dramatic rise in e-cigarette use among middle and high school students nationwide has prompted some suburban districts to take a different approach.

They are going beyond detention, suspensions and punitive measures when students are caught vaping.

Schools are using online vaping education curriculum through VapeEducate and 3rd Millennium designed to help students and families understand the dangers of e-cigarettes and learn strategies to prevent its use. Topics covered include vaping health risks, how e-cigarette marketing targets youths, addiction, and vaping marijuana and THC — the main psychoactive compound that produces marijuana's high.

Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and Prospect High School in Mount Prospect are the first in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 to adopt VapeEducate's curriculum this year. Provided it's successful, officials might roll it out districtwide.

“We have a lot of different ways we are being proactive. This is one of the tools we are using,” said Nick Olson, Prospect division head for student success, safety and wellness.

Huntley Unit District 158 has taken a comprehensive approach to addressing the vaping problem through education for teachers, parents and students since last school year. As a result, fewer students have been caught vaping this year, said Tony Venetico, principal of Marlowe Middle School in Lake in the Hills.

“We're going to handle it on a case-by-case basis,” Venetico said. “Sitting in suspension doesn't teach students anything. We're hoping they walk away from this and make better choices and help educate their friends as well. That is how we are going to have a lasting impact on this epidemic.”

How it works

3rd Millennium's course can take between 45 minutes and two hours to complete depending on the student's ability and focus. It includes a test that students can take at home or during non-class times at school, said Janet Cook, Glenbard District 87's director of student services.

Students placed in detention for having or using vaping devices can complete the course to get out of detention.

“We're trying to use this as part of restorative justice,” Cook said. “Our hope is that it changes future decisions.”

VapeEducate's online course also is self-paced and includes six lessons and a test after each unit. Students must score a minimum of 80% to pass a unit. The course takes about 5 hours to complete and can be done at home or at school. Results are sent to school administrators and parents, and students receive a certificate of completion.

The McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition used federal grant funding to purchase 1,000 licenses of VapeEducate's course, which it is providing for free to middle and high schools countywide. Each license can be used only once.

Health officials have been providing five weekly presentations in schools on the risks of tobacco use, vaping and nicotine addiction. But it's hard to gauge how much information students absorb or retain, said Laura Crain, Drug Free Program coordinator for the coalition.

“VapeEducate is similar in content, but it is more you watch and learn,” Crain said. “It's just one more way of really reaching the students that we know are engaged in (vaping).”

Some high school athletic coaches are considering having entire sports teams take the course rather than just the players who might be vaping, Crain said.

VapeEducate's curriculum is developed by Ohio-based school administrators and teachers. It is updated frequently with new information about vaping-related health issues, the vaping industry and new laws.

“We have an average of about 25,000 online users that we are educating. ... It's growing immensely,” said Dorothy Bishop, chief operating officer. “Some schools are being very proactive and using it to educate students in orientation, health class.”

Many schools that piloted the program are returning to purchase additional licenses. “That's a strong signal that it's helping,” she said.

  The McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition is working with school districts throughout the county, including Huntley Unit District 158, to pilot a new online vaping education curriculum. Rick West/

Key facts about use of vaping products

More than 3.6 million youths were using e-cigarettes in 2018 — nearly 21% of high school students and nearly 5% of middle schoolers are users. Vaping-related respiratory illnesses have led to 47 deaths in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

• Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are also called vapes, e-hookahs, vape pens, tank systems, mods and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).

• Using an e-cigarette product is commonly called vaping.

• E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid to produce an aerosol that users inhale into their lungs.

• The liquid can contain nicotine, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinoid (CBD) oils, and other substances and additives. THC is the psychoactive mind-altering compound of marijuana that produces the “high.”

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Youth Tobacco Survey

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