JUPITER, Fla. — It's back-to-school time across the country, and while many COVID rules in the classroom are relaxing, there's a different health issue at play: vaping at school.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most electronic cigarettes—also known as vapes—contain nicotine, which can be highly addictive and harm a young, developing brain well into a person's 20s.
The principal of Jupiter High School in south Florida, Colleen Iannitti, displayed dozens of vapes collected on school grounds during the last school year. Most looked like candy, key fobs or thumb drives, but in actuality, they were vaping devices.
"It escalated fast," Iannitti said. "It went from a, 'I'm going to smoke this fruity product' to 'I'm going to smoke stuff with tobacco in it' to 'I'm going to smoke stuff with THC in it.'"
Iannitti has been working for years to educate school staff, parents and students about the dangers of vaping and how the habit can start early.
"It is happening at high school. It is happening at middle school. We've even heard stories of it happening in elementary school," she said.
Some of the latest data from the CDC showed vapes were the most common tobacco product used by middle and high school kids.
"I think why would you do that and risk something bad happening to yourself," 7th-grade student Brodie Zitner said.
Zitner has never vaped, but he says he has been exposed to it at middle school.
"A lot of the times, it was like, 'Oh, someone is vaping in the bathroom,'" Zitner said.
Iannitti said she started with the school bathroom to get vapes off her campus.
"We kind of went on lockdown. Every student needed to be escorted to the bathroom. We locked all of the bathrooms and if you wanted to go to the bathroom, we had staff members literally walking kids to the bathroom," she said. "It was pretty radical, but it sent a really strong message really quickly because parents were like, 'Hey, why are you doing this?'"
Iannitti said the school also works with local police to help bust stores illegally selling vaping products to children. They also give gift cards in exchange for students that turn in vapes.
It's taken three years, and Iannitti says she's seen a dramatic decline in vaping incidents on campus, which is similar to the national trend.
According to the CDC, 11.3% of high school students said they vaped in 2021. That's down from 19.6% in 2020 and a further decline from the 27.5% of high school students who said they vaped in 2019. It's unclear how much the pandemic and lockdown impacted those numbers contained in the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
Iannitti said she'll continue referring any student caught vaping to school-based mental health teams for counseling and support, which is a signature issue for the Palm Beach County School district.
"When a student is doing something like that, first of all, we know it's really addicting, and it's also an indicator that something else is happening," she said.