Franklin County school officials and community leaders are joining together to put an end to underage vaping and bringing awareness to parents on the growing epidemic facing students in the county and across the nation.

“Chances are good that if you have a child at the middle or high school, your child has vaped or knows someone who does,” said Franklin County Superintendent Mark Church.

A vape, or an e-cigarette, is a battery-powered device that delivers nicotine, flavoring and other ingredients to the user. The use of an e-cigarette is sometimes called “vaping” or “juuling.”

A panel of representatives from the school system and several local agencies met Thursday night at Franklin County High School to address parents on the topic of vaping and to open their eyes to the alarming rate at which the habit of vaping has grown.

“Four years ago, we didn’t even know what a vape was,” said FCHS Principal Jon Crutchfield. “There were no vaping incidents on record at the high school.”

Crutchfield said that, currently, there have been 269 instances of students caught vaping on campus.

Administrator Curtis Bumgardner touched on the rate of growth in student referrals due to vaping within the last four years alone.

According to Bumgardner, during the 2016-17 school year, there were only five vaping referrals on record.

“During the 2017-18 school year, there were 44 referrals,” he said. “That is a 2.2% increase from the previous year.”

The following year in 2018-19, there were 155 student referrals and, so far this school year, there have been 65 referrals.

“Vaping is still so young,” Crutchfield said. “The dangers are still in the study stage. We still don’t know what the long-term effects are. Vaping is now the gateway to other drug use. Most teens don’t know the dangerous long-term effects vaping has on their developing brains.”

Church said that many parents are unaware that their child is vaping or believe that vaping is not harmful.

“Some of our parents believe that students are just breathing vapor while, in reality, almost every vape cartridge contains nicotine,” he said.

Other chemicals found in vapes include formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer, and acrolein, which is used as a weed killer and can cause irreversible lung damage. E-cigarettes are not evaluated or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

As of July 1, it is illegal for anyone under 21 years of age to possess or use tobacco products or vapes.

Sgt. Jason Divers with the Rocky Mount Police Department, and one of four resource officers at the high school, was on hand during the forum to speak with parents about the legalities of being caught vaping while underage.

“This has become a state and national problem,” Divers said. “If caught, your teen will be charged with possession of tobacco products.”

Divers said the first offense would result in 20 hours of community service and a $100 fine. The second offense would result in 40 hours of community service and a $200 fine. Parents of minors sentenced to community service must accompany their child while their service is being completed.

“More and more, school officials are also confiscating vapes containing THC (the main compound in marijuana),” Church said.

Divers explained that possessing THC in certain potencies, whether the offender is an adult or a juvenile, is a class 5 felony.

The concentration of nicotine and THC found in vapes is extremely high, Divers added.

“The concentration of THC in vapes is so high, one puff is the equivalent of an entire joint,” Divers said. “The amount of nicotine in one pod (a vape refill) is the same as an entire pack of cigarettes. People are getting very sick. That is a very high quantity to ingest in a short amount of time.”

Vapes are available to teens in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of them are disguised to look like USB drives, ballpoint pens, jewelry or other everyday objects.

“There are even vapes that look like an Apple Watch, are tied into the strings of a sweatshirt hoodie or attached to a backpack,” Church said.

Teens are able to purchase vapes and their accessories online or in some local stores.

“Unfortunately, there are some stores in the county that will sell to them while they are underage, and they (students) know which stores will do it,” Crutchfield said.

FCHS social worker Samantha Strong went over ways parents can become more vigilant in putting a stop to their child’s vaping.

“A lot of parents know their kid experiences with vaping, but are not sure about it or what to look for,” Strong said. “If you see something, say something. Be snoopy in your home. Your teen does not need privacy. Be vigilant, ask questions and get to know their friends.”

“Your son’s bedroom should not smell like strawberries, grapes or cotton candy,” Divers added.

The panel encouraged parents to educate themselves and to have conversations with their children.

“If you know or suspect your child is vaping, put an immediate stop to it,” Church said. “Don’t allow it. Don’t condone it. This is an important health crisis, and it will require us to work together to keep our students safe.”

Parents looking for more information about vaping or help for their students, may contact Piedmont Community Services at 483-0582.

School guidance counselors are also available as a resource for more information.

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