'We've got to do something'

Officials concerned about vaping trend in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton high schools

Savannah Vasquez
A school resource officer holds a collection of confiscated vaping devices collected in March at Choctawhatchee High School. [NICK TOMECEK/DAILY NEWS]

Every school day, Niceville High School School Resource Officer Amber Flanagan says she gets a call to investigate student vaping on campus.

“When we get tips about students’ Juuling or vaping on campus — which is at least once per day — we work to determine if it’s accurate,” Flanagan said. "We feel that the parents and even some of the students may not know what the teens are Juuling with these new refillable pods. It is very easy to sneak THC (a cannabis derivative) and other chemicals in these pods to hide it. Juuls have no smell and no vape or smoke."

Vape pens and the newer electronic smoking device Juul have become the new form of inhaling nicotine on high school campuses across the nation. Flanagan said that at Niceville High School, bathrooms and parking lots are the vaping and Juul hot spots on campus.

"School maintenance is impacted due to students flushing the used pods down the toilets, or Juuls themselves when someone walks in on them," she said. "During bathroom checks we often find empty boxes that once contained several (nicotine) pods before being tossed. The parking lots are full of spent pods as well on a regular basis."

Niceville High School is not alone in the increasing vape and Juul trend, according to study published by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. The study revealed that in 2018, the one-year increase in adolescent vaping in the U.S. was the largest ever recorded increase in nicotine use in the past 43 years.

The study found the percentage of 12th-grade students who reported vaping nicotine in the 30 days prior to the study rose from 11 to 21 percent from 2017-2018. The increase, the study said, indicated that statistically, one in five 12th grade students vape nicotine.

Jason Weeks, high school director for Santa Rosa County Schools, said that unlike the days when smoking was popular, students are not necessarily trying to hide the fact that they are vaping on campus. 

"Because there is no smoke and no scent, kids are doing it in the hallway," Weeks said. "With the vaping, they’ve gotten more brave about doing it when we do have a line of sight. We’ve got to do something, the data is telling us that we’ve got a problem so we can’t deny it."


In Okaloosa County, home to eight public high schools, students agree that vaping and Juuling is prevalent among their peers. However, all students interviewed by the Daily News said that the habit is not considered an issue.

“Vaping in high school, to students, it’s not really that important,” said a female student at Choctawhatchee High School. “If you go in to any bathroom you’ll see it. I mean, everybody knows it’s not healthy or anything like that, but students still do it.”

Students spoke on the condition that they not be named.

Another Choctaw student said he sees vaping both at school and at home, but he wouldn’t classify it as a popular trend.

“A lot of them, including some of my family members (do it),” he said of vaping. “I wouldn’t say it’s popular, but a lot of people do it. I think they do it just to do it.”

The Okaloosa County School District reports a huge spike in disciplinary action due to students vaping.

“Generally what you see in the community tends to spill over into the high schools,” said Teri Schroeder, the student services program director for Okaloosa County School District. “We have seen it (vaping) way more than double in high school and in middle school, as well where we have had to discipline students for having those electric devices.”

Schroeder reported that in school year 2016-17, there were two episodes of electronic smoking device disciplinary action in middle schools and 19 in OCSD high schools. A year later (2017-18), those numbers jumped to 47 reports in middle schools and 80 in high schools.

The upward trend has continued into this school year. As of Feb. 28, OCSD had reported 56 electronic device incidents in middle schools and 154 in high schools.

“There is definitely a trend,” Schroeder said. “But keep in mind, this is also a community issue. We’ve got those (vape) shops on every corner now and they are really seriously marketing to young people, so it’s hard to compete with that.”

In Okaloosa County, if students are caught vaping or just possessing an electronic smoking devices, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s SROs are called in to access the situation. SROs also work in tandem with the student club Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) at the high schools.

“It is becoming a bigger problem each year,” said Fort Walton Beach High School SRO James Reeves. “Kids are selling them on campus and some are modifying the Juul to put THC (the psychoactive element in marijuana) oil in them.”

Discipline in Okaloosa County Schools starts with in-school suspension, which involves a day of education to address the vaping or smoking issue. If the issue persists, the student is given additional suspensions and training. If caught multiple times vaping or Juuling without a substantial change in behavior, a student could eventually be placed in an alternative school.

“Discipline is not always black and white; it varies depending on the history of the student,” Schroeder said. “We are hoping that the first time they learn their lesson. There is alternative placement, but that is a process and kind of like down the road, and again, this is only if they are caught doing this on school property.”


Jason Weeks, high school director for Santa Rosa County Schools, said that he has seen the national vaping trend play out in Santa Rosa County's six public high schools, and even the middle schools.

“At this time, it is by far the most increased discipline action that we are having in schools,” Weeks said, adding that they do not differentiate vaping incidents are bundled with tobacco numbers (smoking and smokeless), but he estimated that 90 percent of the disciplinary actions stem from vaping. “Looking at a three- to four-year study of our discipline referrals, it was a glaring increase (in offenses)."

Weeks said that in Santa Rosa County the school district saw 77 tobacco referrals in 2015-16. The next school year (2017-18), that number more than doubled to 161 tobacco referrals.

Weeks highlighted the jump in use by pointing out the numbers from one county high school that he did not name.

“This one got it to our attention,” Weeks said. “In school year 2016-17 they had five tobacco incidents, last year that same school had 26, and this year that school is already at 27 with a remaining nine weeks to go.”

In Santa Rosa County, high school discipline for vaping on school grounds begins with out-of-school suspension. Weeks added that even if the smoking device does not contain tobacco, the discipline is treated the same way.

“School code calls for out-of-school suspension for one day and the completion of a tobacco course for the first offense, as well as online anti-tobacco course within five days,” Weeks said. “If they fail to complete that, the student faces two additional days of suspension.”

Weeks added that Santa Rosa County School District is currently looking into innovative ways to address vaping, both by stopping the practice and educating students on the long-term health issues tobacco can cause.

“There is no doubt we need to start looking at this differently, not only how to deter it, but more importantly we need to provide resources for encouraging kids to stop doing,” Weeks said. “We don’t want to just stop it at school we want to help stop them from doing it period, because it’s not healthy.”


As for Walton County, Superintendent Russell Hughes said that his main concern is the health impact on students.

“Because it has rapidly come on the scene, a lot of children do not know the health impact of it because they think it is an alternative for smoking, but what we are finding is that it is not safe,” Hughes said. “The misuse of it (vaping) by students is a concern of ours.”

Hughes said that in school year 2016-17, there were 33 vaping incidents in Walton County's four public high schools. That number more than quadrupled in 2017-18 with 139 vaping incidents. As of March 7, there have been 115 vaping-specific incidents.

Although there appears there will not be another spike in incidents this school year, Hughes said he is committed to curbing vaping by students.

“We want to address it through health classes, we still have SWAT clubs, and last year when I met with them (SWAT Club students) they talked about the effects of vaping,” he said. “As far as the board is concerned we have addressed it through the student code of conduct as the same as smoking.”

Hughes added that in addition to the programs, the school district is researching new ways to detect the electronic smoking devices.

“They (students) have become so advanced in being able to hide it because the devices are so compact in their designs now,” Hughes said. “We are actually looking into devices that will help us detect vaping in the areas where students like to vape.”

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