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Niskayuna to install vape detectors in high school bathrooms

Niskayuna to install vape detectors in high school bathrooms

Niskayuna Community Action Program to provide financial support for pilot program
Niskayuna to install vape detectors in high school bathrooms
Communication Specialist Matthew Leon looks at a new sign outlining the district's substance-free policy at Van Antwerp.
Photographer: Peter Barber / Gazette Photographer

Niskayuna schools, with the help of the Niskayuna Community Action Program, are working on a pilot plan to place special vaping detectors in a pair of bathrooms at Niskayuna High School.

The detectors, which measure vapor in the air and fluctuations in noise levels, are set to be placed in one girls and one boys bathroom at the high school in the coming weeks or months. Once installed, school staff will get real-time notices about data spikes that indicate the potential of students vaping.

The district has worked with NCAP for the past year on ramping up education about and awareness of the risks of vaping tobacco and marijuana. They have updated the school’s curriculum, provided teachers and staff with training and communicated the risks of vaping with parents and students. Now, they are working on updating signage around school campuses, moving toward more explicit references to the vaping devices.

Also online: New York moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes by emergency order

The vaping detectors, which could expand to more bathrooms and potentially the district's middle schools if found effective, are another angle of attack against student vaping.

“This was yet another prong in our strategy to address this issue,” Kristin Sweeter, the NCAP grant coordinator, said of the detection devices.

The detectors have appeared on the market in the past year as teen vaping has reached epidemic level, and school districts are only just now moving toward their adoption.

Colonie Central High School installed its first vaping detectors in the spring, and school leaders there plan to place them in bathrooms across the building this fall. Chris Robilotti, the school principal, said that while he wasn’t sure whether the detection devices were decreasing the overall amount of student vaping, they were deterring the activity in particular areas and sending a message to students about the seriousness of vaping.

The devices can help school leaders better understand the patterns that emerge when tracking signs of vaping in a particular bathroom. If the device sends vape warnings at consistent times of day, staff can shift their monitoring schedules to intervene at those times. High schools across the region last year implemented measures to restrict large groups of students gathering in the bathrooms, which had emerged as a prime spot for students to meet to share “hits” off someone’s vape.

“As we started to catch kids and use the device to our advantage, you definitely see a decrease in the amount of vaping happening in that area,” Robilotti said. “It really acts as a deterrent, just the idea of it being there keeps kids from (vaping in that area).”

Robilotti said he thinks that the vape detectors were useful enough in the school’s efforts to combat student vaping to justify an expansion to the school’s other bathrooms and locker room. Wider deployment of the detectors may, at the least, drive the student vaping out of those locations. The school started with the devices in two boys and two girls bathrooms at a cost of around $5,000, Robilotti said, with an expansion schoolwide estimated to cost another $15,000.

Also online: New York moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes by emergency order

“My numbers are going down in these areas because kids are aware they can go somewhere else; that’s why we are going to do the next round,” he said. “We are making it less convenient."

Unfortunately, some students have developed strong nicotine or marijuana – or both – habits after months or years of vaping, educators said.

“It just went off before I called you,” Robilotti said of a recent message he received that the detector had been set off.

In Niskayuna, the new detection devices will be funded by NCAP’s federal drug-free communities grant, soon moving into its seventh year and the second year of a new five-year funding cycle. Sweeter said NCAP allocated up to $10,000 for the pilot project and would have the funds to ramp it up to more bathrooms if school leaders find it effective.

Niskayuna and other districts across the region in the last two years have grappled with a surge in student vaping, a method of inhaling nicotine or marijuana through an electronic device that vaporizes an oil before it is effectively smoked from the device.

The issue of teenage vaping has received increasing attention in a short period of time, reaching new heights in recent weeks in the aftermath of vaping-linked lung illnesses and deaths across the country. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump and other top federal officials signaled they planned to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week directed the state Health Department to crack down on use of the chemicals linked to the illness and to mandate warning signs be posted in all vape and smoke shops in the state. On Sunday, he announced that he would move quickly to pursue a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes this week. 

Even before the product was linked to serious illness and a slew of deaths, educators and anti-drug use advocates in the region were calling teenage vaping an “epidemic” and crisis.

Eileen King and Jack Schiavo, student president and vice president of the Warrior Project, a group of about 30 Niskayuna High School student athletes committed to promoting a substance-free lifestyle, said the vaping problem has reached serious levels among their classmates.

“It’s definitely comparable, maybe even worse, than smoking was – however many years ago,” King said. “We know that the younger you start, the more chance you have of getting addicted.”

The students said the group's members seek to set a positive model for other kids in the school, serving as student athletes younger kids can look up to.

“We are trying to have a positive attitude,” Schiavo said.

“Change the stereotype,” King added.

Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert said the vaping detectors will be another tool to help combat student vaping. He said the technology around vaping became highly concealable as the industry created sleek devices similar in appearance to USB sticks.

“We worry constantly about our kids,” Rickert said. “Sometimes technology stays ahead of us and we feel like we are playing from behind.”

He said he thinks the detectors will serve as a deterrent, and though no student had been caught vaping in the first few days of school, Rickert knew that streak was likely to run up soon.

“It’s still there, we know that,” Rickert said of vaping.

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