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Do Vape Detectors Actually Work? The Role of Vape Detectors in Schools

Lee Moskowitz

May 29, 2024
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The worries of nicotine use in schools aren’t new, but the rise of vaping among students means that the issues and solutions are different than they’ve been in the past. While vaping can look less threatening than traditional cigarettes, it carries all kinds of risks. Students who vape are exposed to chemicals that can damage their lungs and brain development, lead to lifelong addiction, and can cause cancer. It can also make them more likely exacerbate mental health and sleep issues.

The good news is that e-cigarette use has decreased among middle and high school students from 14.1% in 2022 to 10% in 2023. However, schools face constant issues with students vaping on campus. Vaping detectors have become a common tool to fight this, and they have their benefits! However, the full setup and a school’s policies make a big difference in effectiveness and there are several factors to consider to make the most of these detectors if they are installed in a school. 

Why do Schools Install Vape Detectors?

Schools and families are concerned with protecting students’ health and development as well as preventing things that could interfere with safety and learning while in school. Preventing vaping on school campuses is a big order, and school staff and teachers need tools and help to make progress. This often leads to installing vaping detectors, which are designed to pick up on chemicals in the air that are associated with vaping. 

How vape detectors work varies by model, as they can pick up particulates, gasses, or a combination. Different models require different installation and monitoring systems to implement, as well. The goal is to help address student vaping behavior in schools by identifying problem times and areas and supporting supervision and behavior interventions.

Creating a vape-free environment increases the time students are able to plug into their education and build quality relationships. It improves their physical and mental health and gives them the best chance to engage in their school community in meaningful and helpful ways. It also prevents them from a raised risk of smoking in their life. The risks of negative peer influence and chemicals in the air are important for students and staff who are not vaping in the school, as well.

What are the Pros and Cons of Vape Detectors in Schools?

The benefits of vape detectors are becoming clearer as the battle against vaping in schools shapes up. Once they’re installed and integrated into the school’s system, they run automatically and update staff as needed. School staff and administrators are already stretched thin and the hands-free support of the detectors can be a big help. 

Transition times and secluded spaces like the bathroom are common issues with vaping, which means supervision is tough. Monitoring those times and spaces in person would be a massive undertaking and keeping staff in position to do so just isn’t safe or effective. Plus, vaping devices are small and often discreet, which makes it difficult for school staff to identify and remove them when they’ve made it into the school. 

Unfortunately, when vaping isn’t prevented or addressed in these times and spaces, it’s clearly unsafe for students. Peer pressure means that a few students vaping typically spreads to a larger portion of the school and brings negative health, social, and educational outcomes with it. Add in the fact that vaping requires students to find ways around school policies and rules more and more often, and the safety concerns grow.

Vape detectors can help as a deterrent here, enhancing school safety. If students are aware that detectors are in effect and behavior expectations and consequences are clearly communicated, they’re less likely to try to vape during the school day. Plus, it gives students who may wish to avoid vaping a built-in response to peer pressure that takes some of the personal element out of it.

While the purpose of vape detectors in schools is clear, vape detector effectiveness is a bit harder to nail down. As an example, sensitivity varies by model. This means that some schools struggle with vape detectors giving false alarms, while others miss vaping incidents that don’t trigger the sensors sufficiently. School staff and administration know well to never underestimate a determined student’s creativity in getting around a system, too!

Other possible negative impacts of installing vape detectors in schools include privacy concerns, the impacts on the school community and relationship building, and the costs of installation, training, and maintenance. It’s important to think through these when deciding on a potential solution to avoid them as much as possible.

Challenges of Vape Detection and Improving Vape Detection Accuracy

What challenges do schools face in effectively using vape detectors to address student vaping behavior? Students circumventing vape detectors and other tools or policies can be a tough issue to combat. Students may coordinate with friends, hide or disguise their vape, find unexpected pockets in their schedule to vape or add time to a valid and needed reason to be out of class, or seek out a new spot that’s not easily seen. Without the right communication and procedures, it’s unlikely that school staff can keep up with these throughout their busy day.

Schools can improve vape detection accuracy and avoid false positives by working with the manufacturer of their vape detection system to ensure that it’s the best system for their school community and is installed and maintained correctly. 

Since many vape detection systems only send an alert and it can be a bit delayed, it often isn’t enough information to see which students may be involved. Schools should look at pairing the detectors with important supports like cameras, e-cigarette and vaping education and supports, and digital hall passes to prevent issues and see what is really happening.

Digital Hall Passes and Student Accountability

A big benefit of vape detectors is their role in gathering great information about what’s happening. Detectors can provide insights and information when there’s a specific event in a location, but they typically need to be paired with things like cameras and other records. An alert isn’t helpful if there’s no way of knowing which student triggered it! Effective prevention and response are only possible when there’s a full understanding of the situation. 

Once the school community knows the full picture, they can work together to build up a positive school environment and student accountability. Since unsupervised or unauthorized time outside of the classroom can be a factor in vaping incidents, SmartPass digital hall passes are an important tool. They offer a way to keep a digital record of who is out of class, when, how long, and how often. Pair that with the detection events, and schools can identify patterns that show which students may be vaping in school. 

If the patterns start to show groups of students that seem to be facilitating meetups and vaping together or cooperating to circumvent the school’s vaping policies, SmartPass Encounter Prevention can offer a way to prevent those students from meeting up to vape during class time. In general, SmartPass solves the foundational problem of students being out of class in order to vape and provides a record of information to guide decision-making and discussion.

New Policies and Laws on Vaping in Schools

In addition to the important concerns of student safety and life-long negative impacts of vaping, many schools are facing the responsibility of enforcing new policies and laws around preventing student vaping in schools. 

The U.S. Surgeon General called student e-cigarette use an epidemic and issued a warning on the impacts. Many states have started task forces or even passed laws forbidding vaping on school campuses, raising the legal age to purchase tobacco, or mandating tobacco and e-cigarette education, among others. It is too important an issue for schools to ignore.

For example, in September of 2023, Texas enacted House Bill 114, a zero-tolerance policy that requires public school students who are caught with vapes at the school to be placed in an alternative schooling environment, or Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DEAP).

Similarly, Kentucky lawmakers have introduced House Bill 142 which requires schools to implement a disciplinary policy for students caught vaping at school. The bill also requires schools to collect data on these incidents and report them to the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE).   

In NY, lawmakers have introduced Senate Bill S8823, which would require all New York City public schools with a student enrollment of 1,000+ to install vape detectors within the school.

School districts throughout the country, including in states such as Florida, Michigan, Washington, and Pennsylvania, are using Juul settlement funds to install vape detectors and fund other anti-vaping measures.

Addressing Student Vaping and Bathroom Behavior

While some school systems will go to heavier behavioral responses like suspension, it’s often not the best policy. Look at more holistic and community-based interventions, like positive reinforcement of healthy choices, encouraging students to share their views and experiences, and boosting individual student accountability. There are resources and community groups who are eager to support schools in engaging students and sharing the benefits of avoiding vaping and other substance use. Partner with them! Help students who are working to avoid or quit vaping connect with counseling and health education whenever possible.

Overall, a strong community and positive school environment are some of the best tools for enhancing school safety and helping students build a lifetime of self-care and healthy habits. Set clear and usable expectations around classroom, hallway, and bathroom behavior, so that students are best supported in making responsible choices. All of the careful work that school administration and teachers do to reach students and build trust will be important in fighting vaping in schools, too. 

Technology Solutions for Improving Vape Detection Accuracy and Policy Enforcement

Nicotine and tobacco use education and prevention are issues schools have faced for a long time. As teachers and school administration are faced with more and more to-dos, stress, and responsibilities, it can be difficult to keep up with. However, the impact on students’ mental and physical health, social interactions, and educational outcomes show just how important it is to tackle. 

Since tobacco and nicotine products have turned to new technology over time, it only makes sense for schools to look for updated technology solutions to match. Intentional community resources, support, and outreach paired with tools like vape detectors, cameras, and communication and record-keeping platforms are a big boost for enforcing school vaping policies. Get in touch to learn more about how SmartPass’s digital hall pass can play a key role in your vape prevention system!

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