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This School District Has a Way to Combat Vaping: Random Nicotine Tests

A school district in Nebraska will start randomly testing students who take part in extracurricular activities for nicotine, after educators noticed a sharp rise in the use of e-cigarettes, a school official said Monday.

The new policy at Fairbury Public Schools reflected the growing recognition nationwide of the public health threat of e-cigarettes. Their soaring use among teenagers has worried health experts, parents and school administrators who point to nicotine’s highly addictive qualities and the ways it can interrupt adolescent brain development.

“It has been something that has been on our mind for a while because we have seen a drastic increase in students that are vaping,” Stephen Grizzle, the district’s superintendent, said in an interview. “Smoking in general, but vaping seems to be the craze right now.”

Mr. Grizzle said that for more than a year, educators had noticed more signs of vaping in classrooms, restrooms and other places at Fairbury Junior-Senior High School, an institution of about 400 students in grades 7 through 12.

The district and the school serve a rural community of about 3,900 people in southeast Nebraska. The new nicotine testing policy was approved by the Board of Education last month and will take effect in the coming academic school year, Mr. Grizzle said.

“We are really wanting this to be a preventive, proactive measure,” Mr. Grizzle said. “We are not wanting to punish kids. We are wanting to give them a reason to say no.”

While smoking of any kind is already prohibited on school grounds, the new test means that students may face repercussions for nicotine use outside of school. The policy will apply to participants in extracurricular activities like sports, speechmaking and marching band.

Those students already must agree to be randomly tested for illegal and performance-enhancing drugs before they join extracurricular groups, Mr. Grizzle said. The new policy will add nicotine to those tests, which had already been carried out for about two years.

About 60 percent of the junior and senior high school’s students take part in extracurricular activities, Mr. Grizzle said. Once a month, about 20 to 25 of those students will be randomly chosen by computer for drug testing, which is administered through a urine sample collected by the school nurse.

The samples that will be analyzed are assigned a number that matches the identity of each student, rather than labeled with their names, Mr. Grizzle said.

“There is nothing sitting in a lab that has the kids’ names on it,” said Chris Franz, an accounts director at the company that carries out the testing, Sport Safe Testing Service, which performs drug testing for about 100 districts nationwide. Mr. Franz said that interest in nicotine testing related to vaping appeared to be rising, but it was not clear whether other school districts in the United States have instituted similar policies.

Vaping among teenagers predominantly involves nicotine, but marijuana can also be used. Juul, one of the most popular brands among teenagers, has particularly high levels of nicotine. And researchers have begun to express concern about the possible long-term effects of particles and chemicals in a vape’s aerosol on a person’s airways.

E-cigarettes are electronic devices that produce an aerosol by heating a liquid. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 3.6 million middle and high school students vaped in 2018. That year, a closely watched annual survey of American teenagers, Monitoring the Future, reported that 1.3 million more high school students vaped in 2018 than in 2017.

It was the largest annual jump in the use of any substance, including marijuana, that the study’s researchers had seen in the project’s 44-year history.

In 2002, the Supreme Court approved random drug testing for high school students, ruling that the need to keep drugs out of school outweighed privacy considerations. The court said drug tests were permissible as a condition for participating in any extracurricular activity that involves interscholastic competition.

On the Facebook page for the local newspaper The Fairbury Journal-News, people commenting on the district’s decision were generally supportive, although some raised concerns about privacy or individual rights. “I do not condone smoking in any way,” one woman wrote. “However, I feel like this is not the school’s place. It is a parental issue.”

Mr. Grizzle said precautions would be taken during testing to rule out students who had inadvertently inhaled secondhand smoke.

The addition of nicotine testing will add about $900 a year to the overall drug testing budget of about $4,000, he said. The district is also considering Wi-Fi-enabled sensors in restrooms and locker rooms that would detect vapor and sounds associated with smoking, he said.

The school carried out 30 disciplinary measures in the 2018-19 school year related to nicotine, most of them involving vaping, compared with seven such disciplinary issues in the 2017-18 term, he said.

First offenders under the new protocol will be forced to undergo drug and alcohol educational programming and will miss 10 days of participation in their extracurricular activity. Second offenders will sit out for 45 days and will have to go through substance abuse counseling at the students’ expense.

A third-time offender will be barred from extracurricular activities for 12 months.

“I would term it a widespread epidemic,” Mr. Grizzle said. “I think we are naïve in thinking that not many kids are doing it.”

Christine Hauser/NYT