As e-cigarette use rises in teens, one school district tries a new approach
If Monroe County school districts suspended everyone who vaped, 45% of seniors would have to be kept out of class at some point, according to data on e-cigarette use from the county’s annual survey of public high school students.
In the Greece Central School District, where suspension has been the go-to punishment for the vast majority of students caught vaping, Assistant Superintendent Mike Zaffuts saw the impending problem.
“First and foremost, they’re losing instructional time,” Zaffuts said. “They’re going to be falling behind peers.”
Suspension can also be counterproductive, said Zaffuts.
“A lot of times, when students are suspended, they’re home from school, and their parents go to work,” he said. “What are they doing during that time if they’re addicted? Vaping.”
Now, the district is trying a new technique, called a restorative approach.
Stephanie Rago, the district’s substance abuse prevention coordinator, has been developing it with Zaffuts.
“We can’t just take a discipline approach, because we need to treat it like a health issue,” Rago said. “It’s truly an addiction. We need more of an intervention.”
Rago said students often don’t realize the high nicotine content of their e-cigarette liquids.
“When we’re talking about a student who might be developing an addiction, you can’t just tell people, ‘Stop it,’ and then they can stop it,” she said.
Josh Wortzel, a psychiatry resident at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said it’s a problem he’s encountered in his work, too.
“In my patients, I’ve seen that it’s unfortunately very hard to force someone to stop using e-cigarettes,” he said. “There are parents who have taken the vapes away from kids and kept them on the equivalent of house arrest, but kids will often still find ways to vape behind closed doors. The devices are so easily concealable.”
Rago said problems with e-cigarettes have escalated rapidly in the school district.
“Honestly, the majority of my time last year in high school, and even in middle school, was around the issue of vaping,” she said.
After a meeting with principals last school year in which they discussed the number of students who were being suspended for vaping, Zaffuts and Rago got together to develop a disciplinary process that did not remove students from class.
The restorative model in the Greece school district starts with self-reflection. Students answer questions about their social and emotional well-being, and then they meet with a counselor and share those answers.
“That lets us see where students are,” Rago said. “Not everyone is in the same place socially and emotionally, and we need to get that foundation to understand why students make the decision to start using e-cigarettes.”
Then comes the educational step, Rago said. “A lot of students don’t realize how dangerous e-cigarettes can be -- they literally think they’re just scents.”
Students watch videos and complete assignments from a checklist asking them to reflect on what they’ve learned.
The last step of the approach is what brings students face-to-face with a person they have harmed.
Vaping is not a victimless offense, Zaffuts said -- the action has ripple effects.
“Let’s say a student has made the decision to leave class and go vape in the bathroom,” he said. Everyone from the person who caught the student vaping, to the teacher who was expecting the student in class, to “the assistant principal who’s having to process a disciplinary referral and make an uncomfortable call home to parents,” is negatively affected by that decision, said Zaffuts.
Students select two people to invite to a meeting: the person they’ve harmed with whom they want to repair their relationship, and a trusted peer or adult to support them.
“One student who went through the program invited the security guard,” Rago said. “They admitted that they didn’t act in a way they wanted to act and were disrespectful in the heat of the moment.”
The restorative approach began as a pilot program at Arcadia High School last year, Zaffuts said. This year, it’s fully implemented at that high school and expanding to other schools in the district, even as New York state moves to ban the flavored e-cigarettes that are the focus of Greece's new disciplinary tack.
That ban was put on hold by a state appeals court last week, but Rago said even if it goes forward, "it remains to be seen" whether it will have any appreciable effect on vaping in schools. Some students say the flavorings are what drew them to e-cigarettes, she said, but "I have another student who prides himself on being able to obtain the flavorings pretty easily regardless of what the state says."
The approach is not designed to fully replace punitive interventions.
“Suspension is still an option,” Zaffuts said. “But the aim is to build in more and more teachable moments into our disciplinary actions.”
The lesson that a student learns from suspension, he said, “boils down to, ‘If I get caught vaping in school, I get suspended.’ ”
In the district’s new approach, “It’s not just about getting caught, it’s about all the decisions that led to that. How do those decisions affect health? How do they affect others? How can students avoid vaping?”
The process takes a lot of time, which is a commodity that’s often in short supply in schools.
“That’s been our biggest concern from the start,” said Zaffuts.
But Rago and Zaffuts said the point is to save time in the long run by giving students the tools they need to avoid vaping, or other harmful behaviors, in the future.
“A restorative program allows us to hear from students -- to find out what they need that they’re not getting,” Rago said. “If you’re just punishing them, those issues never come to the surface.”