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District 518 asks parents for help combating vaping at Worthington Middle School

The Daily Globe - 12/4/2022

Dec. 2—WORTHINGTON — District 518 is asking for parents to help after an increase in Worthington Middle School students being caught vaping — about half of them with marijuana-based cartridges.

"We're here to educate parents," said Casey Hertz, WMS assistant principal. "We feel that a community working together is the only way we can help reduce and hopefully, eliminate the struggle."

The school had meetings on Thursday at Worthington'sMemorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center for English- and Spanish-speaking parents of students at WMS, Worthington High School and the Learning Center. A third meeting for Karen-speaking parents is scheduled for 9 a.m.Dec. 9 in the WMS cafeteria.

As of Friday morning, there had been 21 incidents involving vaping at Worthington Middle School since the school year began, with 10 of them involving nicotine vapes, which adults may legally purchase, and 11 involving marijuana-based THC vapes, according to WMS Principal Toni Baartman.

Hertz began the parent education program by showing what vape products can look like, sometimes resembling USB drives, pens, lighters or other tools. He explained that the e-cigarettes used for vaping are quite small and easy to conceal in a sleeve, a shoe or even underwear.

Students have even made vaping devices smaller by removing some of the elements and using a stripped cellphone charging cord to charge them, meaning a vape device could be just an inch long.

"And (vape cartridges) come in a variety of flavors, most of them targeted at kids. They're fruit flavors... bubble gum and strawberry," he added. "So the targeting is very specific towards our age group of students."

Typically, young people are using their cellphones in order to obtain vaping products, through a variety of different apps also used for general communications, such as Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Discord or WhatsApp.

"If they have access to the internet, they have access to a dealer that's willing to sell them one of these products," Hertz said, encouraging parents to monitor their students' use of electronic devices. He also shared some of the slang terms related to vaping, like cart, nic, juul, dispo, pen, tap, rip, draw, ruby, green emojis, gas, dab, dab pen and plug.

"So why might students use?" Baartman said, and pointed out that often, students use because they're experiencing mental health issues, depression or anxiety. They can also feel peer pressure, or do it because their friends are doing it. Some just want to escape.

Others spoke on vaping-related issues too, offering up the signs and symptoms of mental health issues, such as sadness lasting two weeks or more, low energy and problems sleeping, major changes in eating habits, frequent headaches or stomach aches, changes in school performance or friends, avoiding or simply missing school, hurting oneself, outbursts of extreme irritability, not taking care of hygiene or avoiding friends and family for a long period of time.

Signs a child could be using drugs include wanting to be alone or being depressed, being absent from school or work, avoiding eye contact — potentially due to having reddened eyes, smelling of smoke, sudden weight gain or loss and always being tired.

Heather Hedger, a counselor with New Life Treatment Center in Woodstock, spoke about the cognitive effects of marijuana on adolescent brains, which can be affected more because they are still growing. Short-term consequences include difficulty maintaining focus and attention and increased anxiety; long-term consequences include poor short-term and working memory, slower verbal learning skills and reduced cognition, Hedger said.

The effects can show up as conduct or oppositional disorders, anxiety, depression, learning difficulties, poor grades, truancy or increased difficulty adjusting to change.

Michelle Ebbers, public health nurse supervisor with Nobles County, shared some statistics about vaping, reflecting significant increases in students trying vapes, vaping regularly and vaping marijuana-based substances.

A 2019 Minnesota Student Survey found that 26.4% of 11th graders reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days — and so had 11.1% of eighth graders and 16.3% of ninth graders.

Megan Meinders, a physician assistant at Sanford Worthington Clinic, offered information about what vaping can do to lungs, including causing lipoid pneumonia due to oils inhaled along with the nicotine or THC — both of which also have negative health effects, such as addiction, anxiety, depression, dizziness, breathing problems, agitation and even kidney failure.

"One of the key pieces... is simply having those conversations with your kids," said Carrie Adams, a counselor at WMS. "Engaging your kids in conversation is very important."

She also recommended getting students involved in other activities, particularly those in which adults are present, like YMCA, church or school activities, and knowing students' friends, both online and offline.

"We cannot stress enough how important it is to be monitoring your child's online activities," Adams added.

Hertz said the school is working on developing an anonymous tipline so students can report incidents.

"When students do come to school with vape products, there are consequences," he said.

At the middle school level particularly, District 518 focuses on education and prevention, but even then, consequences can include suspension from Minnesota State High School League activities, including sports, as well as, ultimately, suspension from school if the vapes are nicotine-based, or expulsion from school if they're marijuana-based.

Expelling students isn't necessarily helpful to them, though, Baartman said, as they just go back into the community to do whatever they were doing before, without the support and resources the school can offer.

WMS is working on a Restorative Practice Room, she said, in which teachers will work with students and keep them supervised the entire time. Chemical dependency pre-assessments can be given, with the information then given to the parents so they can also offer support. The school also does small group counseling.

"We're still looking at other things that we can do to support these kids, so we can get them the help that they need. So that they can be successful, and not get to the second offense, because we feel like by the time they have that second offense, it's probably going to be expulsion. We feel we've given that second chance, and we just don't want it in our schools," Baartman said.


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