The Nantucket Public Schools are considering a significant overhaul of their vaping prevention efforts, as it has become clear to administrators, School Committee members and community advocates that the current policies are not effective.
“It is a crisis,” said School Committee Vice Chair Laura Gallagher Byrne. “It’s terrifying and something needs to be done.”
At the School Committee’s workshop session on Wednesday, administrators and Committee members suggested various methods to combat the NPS vaping crisis, including vape detectors in school bathrooms, increased education, and a town-wide ban on e-cigarettes.
While no major decisions were made, Superintendent Beth Hallett is arranging for a webinar with Halo Smart Sensors, the company that provides the vape detectors, and plans to contact Behavioral Health Innovators (BHI), a Cape-based non-profit that focuses on addressing behavioral health issues including substance abuse to see what services they can offer.
Vaping has been a concern at NPS since at least 2019 and has been a matter of discussion at School Committee meetings for years, including an earlier round of talks about vape detectors. Large numbers of NPS students vape, and according to Hallett, the hospital is treating some for nicotine addiction. As the dangers of vaping, which include lung and heart disease as well as addiction, become more clear, the crisis becomes an increasingly important issue for administrators to address.
The largest portion of the workshop session was spent on vape detectors, which can set off a silent alarm through an app when they detect e-cigarette vapor. Since NPS last considered installing them, they have become more reliable, and are now in use in some school districts. In theory, the detectors would prevent students from vaping while in school bathrooms—but Hallett and other NPS administrators raised a host of concerns.
Hallett spoke to Superintendents at two Massachusetts school districts that have installed vape detectors and they told her that there were reports of students finding ways to hide the vapor by vaping into their jackets, shirt sleeves, and even toilet bowls.
“Both Superintendents felt that kids were just getting more savvy,” she said.
Hallett said that when the detectors were first installed, administrators were constantly responding to the alarms. But the students started vaping in hallways and stairwells instead of bathrooms, and the alarms stopped going off.
School Committee Chair Pauline Proch displayed an article she printed with step-by-step instructions on how to avoid detection while vaping. “They’re definitely a couple of steps ahead of us,” she said.
In an email obtained by the Current, Ricky Rand, a client account manager for IPVideo Corporation, the parent company behind Halo, argued that their devices would still detect the vapor if students blew it into toilet bowls or sleeves. “Even if they vape into a shirt, it will detect it,” he said.
Proch worried that even if the detectors stopped students from vaping in bathrooms, they wouldn’t actually have any effect on overall vaping rates.
“It’s an addiction,” Proch pointed out. “We can’t ignore that part of it.”
Still, moving the vaping out of bathrooms might save the school some money. Hallett suggested during the workshop session that vapes are responsible for 5-10 percent of the blocking NPS has seen in the sewer system.
The detectors would have to stop a lot of blockages to pay for themselves. A quote solicited by NPS suggests that just a trial run of four detectors would cost the school over $23,000—and the quote leaves out some additional expenses the school would be responsible for. The cost for a full complement of 24 detectors would be nearly $100,000.
It would only get more expensive if the detectors were destroyed. Diane O’Neil, Director of Facilities and Grounds for NPS, said that in her conversations with other facilities directors, she has heard that students have destroyed some detectors and given struggles with vandalism, feels the same might happen on Nantucket. Rand noted that Halo detectors are ceiling-mounted, which might make them harder for students to reach.
School Committee member Shantaw Bloise-Murphy suggested that a donor might be willing to cover the expenses. “There’s a lot of people who will underwrite projects like these,” she said. Bloise-Murphy, the Town’s Director of Culture and Tourism, says that on Nantucket she’s never decided not to pursue a project because of the cost.
Cost aside, Hallett worried that amidst a staff shortage, NPS might struggle to respond to the alarms and catch students. With faculty already spread thin, constantly responding to the alarms could take administrators away from other important duties.
Vape detectors weren’t the only solution suggested during the workshop. Hallett recommended NPS work with BHI, which has already partnered with several school districts on the mainland, including Barnstable.
“I’d like to start talking to them,” she said. “I think this isn’t a bad place to start.”
BHI has partnered with several mainland school districts, offering an alternative to in-school suspensions where students are sent to their location and go through a full day of counseling. They have also organized forums for students and use peer testimonies and education to stress the dangers of addiction. Hallett hoped they could offer something to NPS and didn’t rule out sending students to the Cape to participate in BHI programs.
“If we had to, I don’t know, maybe it’s something we look into,” she said.
Workshop participants also discussed broader education efforts, including potential partnerships with community organizations like the Dreamland and the Town’s Health and Human Services department. NPS has already made some efforts to educate students about the risks of vaping, but there was a consensus that not enough has been done.
Emerging research offers compelling evidence that vaping, once pitched as the safe alternative to smoking, carries significant health risks. Chemicals used in popular e-cigarettes have been linked to lung cancer, asthma, COPD, brain damage and depression. But anti-vaping education efforts have yet to reach the scale and effectiveness of the anti-smoking campaigns that slashed youth cigarette use at the turn of the century, and e-cigarette use among teenagers remains high.
“Think about all the work and money that went into anti-smoking,” Proch said. “We've got to be using that shock value. It worked for smoking, and I don't think the students understand [the dangers of vaping].”
Referencing the Town’s recent ban on plastic nip bottles, Bloise-Murphy offered a more radical option: banning the sale of vapes on the island outright through a Town Meeting warrant article. While such an effort would need to pass legal muster and receive the votes of Town Meeting voters, several other School Committee members expressed their support.
“I think that’s a genius thing to do,” Byrne said.
For now, NPS will look into the possibility of detectors and a partnership with BHI, and the issue will likely be discussed next at the School Committee meeting on July 18.