Be Humble. Be Brave. Be the Foggy Forest: Seaholm’s Vaping Rate is Unwaveringly High Despite Curtailing Actions

After More Than a Year of Increased Efforts to Curtail Vaping, Seaholm Vapes Above National Rates


Graphic by Valarie Sheer

Friday, December 21, 2018
Written by Asher Leukhardt and Sarah Patterson 

Since 2017, a sharp increase in vape usage by American teenagers prompted government agencies, news organizations, school administrators and parents to focus immensely on the prolific trend of teen usage of electronic vapor devices. December 2017 data collected by The Highlander showed that Seaholm has an exceptionally high number of students who vape, and despite recent efforts to curtail the trend at district and federal levels, student accounts and anonymous data collected in The Highlander’s 2018 Anonymous Vape Poll demonstrate that Seaholm students continue to consume the illicit product above the national average. Conversely, Birmingham Public Schools (BPS) Derby Middle School is practicing greater enforcement and has developed increasingly prominent education on the topic.

In The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (N.I.D.A.) Monitoring the Future Survey, which was conducted by the University of Michigan demonstrated that 20.9% of high school seniors nationwide vaped within 30 days prior to the 2018 survey. Seaholm seniors vape nearly 250% as much, reporting that 51.6% of had vaped within the past 30 days.

The N.I.D.A. data was released Monday, and The Highlander collected 420 useable data sets from November 13 through December 16.    BPS 8th graders vape at a rate about 10% below the national average, 6.1% having vaped ever to an overall 17.6% having vaped within the past year.

Schools and districts across the country have responded differently to the widespread use of the illicit devices, however, Seaholm Assistant Principal Michael Wicker says, Seaholm’s policies and enforcement have changed little.

“Policy has not shifted,” said Seaholm Assistant Principal Michael Wicker. “I think we have a nice balance of trying to be assertive with anti-vaping without becoming too intrusive into students lives.”

Students found vaping or in possession of a vaping device containing no THC receive 2-day suspensions, and if the vape juice contains THC, the psychostimulant chemical active in marijuana, the student incurs a 10-day suspension.   Since Michigan passed Proposal 1 in November, the Birmingham Police Department has begun punishing THC or marijuana as an equivalent misdemeanor to a minor in possession offense.

Enforcement at Seaholm consists of deliberate bathroom checks, staff vigilance, and student reporting, Wicker said, and beyond that, it does not typically extend much further. Wicker says hall monitors are check bathrooms throughout the day, administrators check them during lunch and teachers are instructed to prevent the abuse of bathroom privileges by reporting suspect behavior.

Wicker believes that much more than current policy would excessively erode students’ privacy, especially casting doubt upon the enforcement’s ability to truly prevent vaping in school, saying that students will continue to find ways to vape at school.

Wicker holds that vaping policy should be limited to prevent showing a distrusting aura in administration student body relationship, preferring fostering good decision making over increased enforcement.

“Speaking for myself, that vaping while a pervasive issue is not something that every student does, so to stop every student at the door then go through their backpack and do random searches is not the climate or culture that we’re trying to build at this school,” Wicker said. “We want to trust students and what to encourage them to make their own decisions, make the right decisions.”

In BPS  middle schools, where vaping occurs at less than half of the nationwide rate, the school-run anti-vaping campaign is prevalent and innovating to prevent usage.

Derby administration has begun a coordinated effort to monitor bathrooms, with teachers and administrators methodically checking bathrooms throughout the day, even during class, says Derby Assistant Principal Frederick Costello, who says this is the first time bathrooms are being checked on a consistent schedule at Derby.

The other front of curbing the vaping trend at Derby is education, an area in which Costello and Assistant Principal Smith have been pushing new practices, primarily a periodical town hall at which students conference with administrators by grade level to discuss pertinent issues, including vaping. The principals also use the assemblies as a platform to share information about the health effects of vaping.

Since teen vape usage reached what the FDA is calling “epidemic” rates, federal agencies have been acting to prevent vape manufactures from targeting minors in advertisements and product selection. The FDA has required the monotonization of Juul’s and other vape companies’ ads, which formerly featured bright colors and young, smiling vapers, and has pressured companies to end their sales of flavored e-liquid, each being cited as expedients by which vape companies exploited minors and got them addicted to their products.

Since November 15, Juul, the largest and most popular vape manufacturer in the U.S. ceased sales of all flavors, save menthol, mint, and tobacco, as reports at the time claimed the FDA was soon to announce a regulation to ban flavored pods, specifying minors usage as the primary grievance for doing so. While the FDA has not made such an announcement, Juul has not resumed sales of its flavored pods in the U.S.

One Seaholm anonymous junior who vapes nearly every day avers that such impediments do not stop them from acquiring vape resources, especially as they doubt the advertisements or flavors are primary causes of the popularity of the devices.

“The flavor pods are not the cause, it’s not because of that. Every kid… vapes because they think they’d do cool tricks,” the junior said, elaborating that vape usage begins, at least, being a social practice. Now they use  it primarily to get a nicotine “buzz.”

The junior says acquiring vapes supplies via typical conduits of procurement– from peers, websites or local shops known to sell to minors– is as easy as ever, and, despite Juul’s suspension, getting the supplies necessary to use their device hasn’t been a challenge. They believe that if some companies are willing to step aside from selling demanded products, others will still provide them, bar any stifling regulation.

According to The Highlander’s vape survey, 18.4% of Seaholm students own some kind of vape device, and 11.3% have in the past.

The junior views vaping as no more of an impediment than caffeine in their life, however, for others, including one anonymous sophomore, vaping can be far more deleterious.

The sophomore began with occasional social use, gaining access to the devices through friends and older siblings in the summer of 2017. Then, their use increased as the school year began– in the bathrooms, while doing homework to “control” their ADHD– it didn’t seem like a burden until they realized they were addicted. Since late last school year, they have been trying to ditch the addiction, and they feel like it has gone too far, has become a source of significant personal shame.

“I’ve been caught by my mom, and she’ll take it, and it’s not that that bothers me, it’s the lecture. She’ll start screaming at me because she knows it doesn’t affect her but it affects me– it just makes me so sad and guilty,” the sophomore said.

They are still addicted. After scrutiny by schools, and recent federal governmental actions, vaping has decreased little at Seaholm. The small pods are an acceptable part of some students lives and a nasty bane in others. And, despite more than a year’s worth of close inspection and regulation, Seaholm students report that they’re still acquiring and using vapes, in school and out, whether they truly want to or not.


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